Deck Building 101: Part 13 – Testing A Deck
Recently, a reader asked me a very important question, and one that I have never really addressed in this blog: how exactly do I test a deck once I’ve built it? This is an important topic to explore as testing is an important part of my own deck building process, as well as most other players. In a perfect world, in which I had unlimited free time, I would take each deck and run it through each scenario several times in order to truly see how well it performs as a whole and against specific challenges. Given just how many scenarios there are now in the game, and with more being released all the time, this would be unrealistic even in such a hypothetical situation, but becomes even more unlikely with a family and job! Quite frankly, even a modest testing regime can take more time than I have available these days, and so often it’s all about trial by fire. In other words, I’ll build a deck and play it against whatever quests I feel like playing at the moment, and methodical testing be damned! If you have limited time to play the game, then this is my suggestion. Don’t let worries about sound testing ever detract from actually playing and enjoying the game! With that said, I’m going to outline here a relatively simple regime that can help to test the mettle of new decks.
Part One: Testing Theory
The idea of testing a deck really comes from the world of competitive card games, since such games have ruled the roost from the beginning, and cooperative forms are relatively new to the scene. In competitive card games, the necessity for testing is rather obvious. You don’t want to show up to that all-important tournament with a deck that is merely a good idea and get smashed in the first round! Testing one’s deck then becomes all about finding ways to determine the strengths and weaknesses of one’s build before a competitive situation, so that you can tweak it or even scrap it entirely if necessary. The main idea here is that no matter how well you may know a game or the cards, there is no substitute for actually seeing how a deck plays out in practice.
Obviously, the situation changes quite a bit when it comes to a cooperative game like LOTR LCG. There are no tournaments, at least not in an extensive or organized way, and certainly not in a way that is an integral part of most players’ experience of the game. The only purpose of building decks in this game then is to defeat the scenarios players are faced with, in a manner and to an extent that is determined solely by players. This brings up an inevitable question: is testing even necessary in LOTR LCG? Necessary is a bit of a stretch for me. If you’re having fun with the game, and never test a deck or even think about testing, then keep doing what you’re doing. However, I would argue that testing can certainly be useful, and if you are looking to build better decks, then testing is an important component, even in the absence of tournaments. By identifying just how testing is useful to the game, and defining our purposes, we can build a better testing regime.
Before we do this, though, it’s important to really be honest about what you want a deck you are building to accomplish. Are you trying to build the “one deck” that will rule them all? If so, then your testing process should look a lot different than if you are just building a deck to handle one specific quest or constructing a deck around a certain theme or story. In fact, I would argue that the latter types of decks probably don’t need testing at all. So the regime outlined here is really created with the idea of testing decks that, while not necessarily aiming to be the “one deck”, are at least well-rounded and well-balanced enough to deal with a variety of scenarios. Another issue is the difference between testing a solo deck and multiplayer deck. The only real testing a multiplayer deck can receive is in actual play versus a scenario with others, and unless you have a dedicated group with hours and hours of time on their hands, there likely won’t be any possible testing regime. Therefore, the testing regime in this post is mainly dedicated to building solo decks (as well as two-handed solo decks), with the caveat that a solid solo deck should hold up well in multiplayer as well, although it won’t have the specialization and designed synergy of a focused multiplayer build.
With that said, there are a three main purposes for testing in this game:
– To identify the strengths and weaknesses of a deck: Rule number one of deck building should be never to expect that the first draft of your deck is the best one or a finished product. You will need to make tweaks, removing cards that aren’t pulling their weight, adding effects to address glaring weaknesses, and adjusting copy counts. The only way to really figure out exactly what changes you need to make is to test your deck. Of course, you can get some of this feedback by playing a deck against a random assortment of quests or whatever strikes your fancy at the moment. However, a carefully picked set of quests to test a deck against can, at least theoretically, give you an idea of how to change a deck to deal with a variety of different challenges. Without testing, you may think a deck is great, but it could have some substantial flaws that you never notice because you don’t play against certain types of quests. Again, maybe this doesn’t matter to you if you don’t care if it can handle most scenarios, but testing can definitely help form a more well-balanced deck.
– To serve as a tool for comparison: Generally, there’s no good way to systematically compare decks in LOTR LCG based on their power. In other games, tournaments provide some measure, as the decks that tend to win or place high are considered to be the strongest. By contrast, in our game, all that we have is the reports of various players as to how their decks performed against a mish-mash of various quests, which may or may not be useful for others. However, if you were to have a consistent set of quests that you tested decks against, then this could provide a baseline for comparing the power level of various decks. Obviously, even when playing the same quests, there is a variance because of the randomness of the encounter deck and player deck, but you still should have a general sense of whether that Dunhere build is stronger than your Hobbit deck based on which one did better against the same scenarios.
– To see if a deck is worth sharing: Players of LOTR LCG share their decks in a variety of ways, from blogs like this one to Facebook posts to CardgameDB to various forums. Sharing decks is one of the key parts of a community surrounding a card game that involves deck building, and it makes sense that people would want to test out a deck first before revealing it to the world. This is probably the least important of the three reasons, but not an unworthy one. Testing a deck allows players to better explain it to readers, outline its strengths and weaknesses, and give information to help others decide whether or not they want to try it out.
Part Two: The Four Quest Crucible
Now we come to the actual design of our testing process. As much as I might like to talk about such things in scientific terms, the fact of the matter is that creating such a process is a necessarily subjective beast, and I expect spirited debate about it. This is a positive, as much like a newborn deck, this testing regime should be thought of as a first draft in an evolving creation. Feedback from other players will help me to shape it into an even better and more finished form over time. With that said, creating this testing regime really boils down to selecting a representative set of quests that can stand in for the different challenges that the fifty odd scenarios that are currently available pose. This allows for testing how well rounded a deck is without taking on every quest. Of course, a few crucial questions emerge as part of this selection process:
– How many different quests should be part of the testing regime?
As with all representative samples, the more the better. In other words, a huge quest pool of say twenty quests would definitely provide a reliable testing regime. On the other hand, the time demands would be ludicrous and defeat the whole purpose. A nice single digit number seems much better, and while I originally leaned towards five, I finally settled on a four scenario process for testing decks. This seems like a manageable number, and while perhaps much too small to cover every kind of challenge the game provides, it still can give some meaningful feedback. If you have more time on your hands, you could obviously increase this number to suit your taste.
– How many times should each quest be played?
Playing a deck against a scenario once isn’t enough to really test how a deck will fare against it in general. Anyone who has played this game knows that the encounter deck giveth and the encounter deck taketh away. During some games, you may get all the fortunate draws as beautiful rainbows crisscross over fields of benevolent locations. During other games, you may get used as Sauron’s personal handkerchief as he expels all the hatred and malice of Mordor upon your unfortunate person. Playing multiple times against the same quest is the only way to try to account for this variation. Again, the more plays the better, but I find 3 plays to be a reasonable number.
– Which quests will be part of the testing regime?
This is the toughest part of the whole process, and the one which will likely inspire the most disagreement. Four scenarios is not nearly enough to cover all the different wrinkles that players have to face, but the idea should be to select quests that represent a whole category of quest types. First off, then, I will eliminate those scenarios that are relatively unique and pose challenges that aren’t really replicated in other quests. These can be justifiably excluded as oddballs. I would include among these such quests as A Journey to Rhosgobel, which has a healing focus, as well as a requirement for ranged characters, that isn’t really seen elsewhere, at least to the same degree. This would also cover the Fords of Isen, whose card draw hate isn’t really typical of any other scenario, even a similar one like The Dunland Trap (perhaps further scenarios in the Ring-maker Cycle will replicate this, but this is yet to be seen). I also would throw out The Battle of Lake-town, as it requires so specialized a deck that I don’t find it very meaningful for our purposes here. There also is the question of difficulty. Is it better to include a mix of difficulties, from the easiest to the hardest? Or should only the most nightmarish scenarios need apply? Since I only have four scenarios to pick from, I want quests at the harder end of the scale. The easier quests won’t tell me much about a deck, especially for comparison purposes. I also don’t want to simply pick the most difficult quests, as quite frankly some of these acquire their difficulty from a fair bit of randomness and special challenges that aren’t seen elsewhere. Thus, I’ll pick harder quests as a rule, but difficulty is not the sole criteria.
Ultimately, I’ve settled on a four quest crucible as a testing regime. This will consist of taking a deck and playing it against four different quests three times each, but what quests form the best test?
Quest #1: Journey Along the Anduin
The Well-rounded Quest
There are certainly some elements of Journey Along the Anduin that make it not ideal for testing purposes. It can be horribly random, at times dealing out favorable setups or draws with treacheries that harmlessly fizzle, while other times hitting players with horrors like a double Hill Troll in the first round. However, to be honest, there are a broad swathe of quests in the early life of the game that also fall under this category, so it seems fair to pick a scenario that also shares these flaws. Beyond that aspect, though, Journey Along the Anduin serves up a few distinct challenges that are also found in quite a few quests. First, players start off facing a huge enemy right off the bat in the form of a Hill Troll, that they can deal with in a variety of ways, from building up slowly through low threat to hitting the board fast with a strong combat setup. Then, in the second stage, players have to be able to muster enough willpower to clear a stage quickly, which is something that can be seen in many other scenarios. Finally, Journey ends with pure combat, which can range from a simple mop-up to an epic stand. This quest has certainly become easier over time with the growth of the card pool, but forms a good baseline for testing, and it just felt right to pick a Core Set quest.
Alternative: The Massing at Osgiliath – This one also hits hard with combat at the beginning, although this time in the form of a horde of smaller enemies. Players have to manage both questing and combat carefully, complete with a big boss at the end.
Quest #2: Into Ithilien
The Battle/Siege Quest
Surely the masses must be rising up in arms to protest the lunacy. Into Ithilien? Really? The quest that I’ve complained about in frustration possibly more than any other? The quest that was hopelessly broken by a Blocking Warg bug? The quest that some players have sworn off completely? Bear with me here, loyal readers. I wanted to pick one quest that encompassed the battle/siege mechanics that were so integral to Heirs of Numenor and the Against the Shadow cycle. Some people love battle/siege, and others feel that it was a deviation that should be left behind. For my part, I found battle/siege to be an incredibly welcome break from the “ready, set, quest” mentality that was so much a part of earlier scenarios, and it also totally shook up deck building. While battle/siege has been part of other quests here and there, it is unclear how much it will show up again in the future. Still, one can hardly ignore this mechanic when it was a part of an entire cycle, as well as a smattering of other quests. Thus, it makes sense to pick one quest that can test a deck’s ability to handle battle and siege. The Battle of Five Armies is actually my first choice, since it forces players to tackle each type of questing, but that scenario can drag on into quite a lengthy affair, which is definitely not ideal for testing purposes. Siege of Cair Andros is also a possibility, but it is simple to completely avoid the battle keyword. Thus, I’ve settled on Into Ithilien, which includes both the battle keyword and the necessity of facing either traditional or siege questing (possibly both). It is also quite challenging and places a heavy emphasis on combat. The fix to Blocking Wargs has also made this into a more palatable affair. Finally, Into Ithilien can be played quite quickly, at least more than The Battle of Five Armies, which makes it my pick for quest #2.
Alternative: The Battle of Five Armies – If you’ve got the time, then this is a great alternative. You need a well balanced deck to tackle all three types of questing with just one deck, and it also is quite combat intensive. The only hiccup here is that this is a Saga scenario, which brings in a fourth hero in the form of Bilbo, but it still works out fine for testing.
Quest #3: The Steward’s Fear
The Willpower and Location Happy Quest
Another category of quests on the opposite end of the scale are those that demand high levels of willpower, as well as an ability to manage locations. The Hills of Emyn Muil is perhaps the classic example, but I’m not about to include that as part of my testing regime. The Redhorn Gate is also an example, as well as the newest Gen Con quest, The Old Forest. In my opinion, The Steward’s Fear is the best testing representative of this scenario “genre”. It can be quite difficult in solo play, requires players to carefully manage locations, but also includes some challenging enemies to make sure that combat can’t be ignored completely. While it can also be on the longer side, this type of scenario tends to generally be lengthier, so I will forgive that particular sin in this case. The way in which enemies appear, through the underworld deck, is not typical, but this is rather incidental to the way in which this scenario tests the ability of a deck to muster enough willpower to consistently clear locations and overcome threat, while leaving behind enough characters to deal with combat.
Alternative: Nightmare The Redhorn Gate – The original version of The Redhorn Gate is probably a bit too easy for testing purposes, although it’s serviceable. The Nightmare version ups the ante without making things ridiculous, so it can be a good alternative to The Steward’s Fear.
Quest #4: The Three Trials
The Boss Quest
There are several scenarios in the game that force players to take on a big “boss” enemy or a few smaller “bosses”. These generally place a premium on being able to defend consistently, often early on in a scenario. The Battle of Lake-town and Shadow and Flame are examples of the typical boss quest. However, I would also count The Morgul Vale in this category, with its series of three “mini bosses”. Although a newer quest, The Three Trials scratches this testing itch, as each guardian can be thought of as a boss that must be faced, and the scenario ends with a tough ask for solo players that truly tests a deck’s ability to muster enough defense and attack to survive. The way in which The Three Trials immediately forces players to face a tough foe and doesn’t really let up will immediately spotlight defensive weaknesses in a build.
Alternative – The Morgul Vale – This one is similar in some ways to The Three Trials, with three bosses to face, but it plays out quite differently. Still, this one is a tough test for a solo player and immediately spotlights how a deck fares against tougher enemies.
Part Three: Interpreting the Results
Completing the testing regime will mean a total of 12 games, a total I picked intentionally to be somewhat reasonable. Obviously, you won’t want to subject every deck to 12 games unless you have the time. Rather, you can save the full treatment only for the decks you really care about. Others can receive a 4 or 8 game treatment (playing each quest only once or twice respectively) if you so desire. However, now that all the games have been played? Now what? The final part of the testing process is actually the most important part: interpreting the results. After all, if you simply play the games, but don’t think through what they mean, there’s no point to testing at all. So what are the keys to interpreting testing results:
#1 – Winning is not everything (…for the most part)
When doing this kind of testing, the temptation is strong to simply look at the win/loss ratio against each quest and overall and ignore everything else. This is a big mistake. It’s not necessarily whether you won or lost, but how you won or lost. This is what should guide any changes you make. You also want to keep in mind what your big plans are for this deck. If it’s meant to be the “one deck to rule them all”, then a poor win/loss ratio is indeed not a good sign, and will definitely mean more than it will to a deck that you are only planning to use against quests in the Ring-maker cycle, for example. That all being said, the most useful part of the win/loss ratio will be seeing how your deck performs against each type of quest. Perhaps your deck had a perfect 3 wins against The Steward’s Fear but went 0 for 3 against Into Ithilien. This is a solid sign that your deck is lacking in battle/siege capabilities but strong in willpower. Again, what you do with this information is up to you. If you don’t care how solid your deck is against battle/siege, then no changes are necessary, but at least you’ll have a clear idea of just how it performs against this type of scenario. This leads us to…
#2 – Ask the right questions
Some of the best questions to ask are the most simple: Why did I lose? Why did I win? If you lost in the third round of The Three Trials because all your heroes were destroyed, this is much different than losing in the sixth round due to threating out. If you were faced with the latter result, then a good follow-up inquiry would be thinking about whether you threated out because of not questing successfully or because of player or encounter card effects. If the particular cause of you losing happened only once in twelve plays, then it’s probably not a big deal, but if it comes up several times, then it’s probably an inherent weakness of your deck. You can either accept that fact or make changes to solve it. This also means that while it is normal and understandable to quit games before they complete when playing normally, it can be helpful to play out games to their end when testing in order to gain more information and better understand what ultimately brought you down. When analyzing wins, the keys are to think about whether there are any patterns that you can see in all the victories. Were there certain cards that always seemed to hit the table in your wins but be absent in your losses? Did certain cards appearing in your opening hand seem to make a difference?
#3 – Look out for the dead weight
Almost every card in a deck seems like a great idea at the time you build it, otherwise you wouldn’t include it in the first place. However, testing is the harshest mirror, and will immediately separate the keepers from the dead weight. You may be intellectually in love with the idea of including a certain card, but when the pressure is on and your choices mean the difference between victory and defeat, then the true worth of a card will be revealed. In other words, during the testing process and afterwards, notice which cards end up staying in your hand turn after turn and which ones you choose to play right away. Then, it’s important to consider why a particular card isn’t being used. Is it because you never had enough resources to play it, even though it would’ve been useful? In this case, some added resource generation or a change to the sphere distribution in your deck might be in order. Or was it that there always were better options to play that seemed more effective each round? In this case, it might be worthwhile to replace the card altogether. If you are really interested in building a tight and powerful deck, every card must pull its weight. In this world of a larger card pool, there’s no longer any room for wasted cards. It’s natural that many times you will have to make tough decisions between cards in your hand, but if a certain card always ends up losing out to others in terms of what you play, then it’s time to make a change.
#4 – Tune the card draw and resource engine(s)
The final step is to pay attention to the core mechanics of a deck, which are card draw and resources. Do you continually find yourself with plenty of resources on one hero? The problem may be that you need more cards from that hero’s sphere in your deck, and that there is too much of a skew in the cards you included towards a different sphere. Alternatively, maybe you just never had enough cards in your hand to play, in which case you can either include more card draw or cut back on any resource acceleration you may have going for that particular hero. On the other hand, if you find yourself constantly with tons of cards in hand, but no way to play them, then you have a few options. You can add resource generation or transfer. You can include cards like Protector of Lorien that give you something to do with extra cards. Or you can switch out some cards to make room for effects that let you play cards for a reduced cost, like Good Meal, Timely Aid, or A Very Good Tale. Again, though, the problem could be with sphere distribution if you are running a dual or tri sphere deck, so having cards that you can’t play may be a matter of adding more cards from one sphere and taking away some from another. This will be pretty obvious if you are constantly stuck with Spirit cards in hand, for example, but continually are able to play Lore.
The testing regime I’ve described is admittedly a bit tough for many decks. An evasive Hobbit deck, for example, will likely struggle mightily against Into Ithilien and The Three Trials. At the risk of overstating the point, though, I’ll say one more time that this testing process is not meant for every deck. If you have a fun deck that you’ve built and your intention is just to use it against easier scenarios, then there’s little point in wasting time on testing when this will ultimately end in messy defeat. On the other hand, you could use such a deck against these four quests, knowing that winning or losing is not important as the information you gather. Ultimately, these four scenarios are designed to probe at a deck to determine how well-rounded it is and what changes could be made to make it better overall, as well as to improve its performance against certain quest types.
All of this testing business can be a bit nebulous when described in the abstract. In the next installment of Deck Building 101, I will take a deck of uncertain quality and put it through the ringer using this process. This will allow me to describe in detail the testing and tuning process when applied to an actual deck. As always, I welcome feedback as I look to test the testing process itself!