The Treason of Saruman: Heroes Review
Just when a humble reviewer thought it was safe to creep out from behind his laptop, another big expansion for LOTR LCG has arrived: The Treason of Saruman. That means there can be no rest for the weary, as a fresh batch of player cards is waiting to be weighed, measured, and judged. The Treason of Saruman has to be one of the most anticipated expansions this game has ever seen, if for no other reason than it finally brings one of the most amazing and epic moments of The Lord of the Rings to the table: the battle and siege of Helm’s Deep! The stakes are also raised in terms of player cards, and heroes in particular, as Saga Expansions necessitate the arrival of only the biggest and most important characters from the story we all know and love. The Treason of Saruman certainly doesn’t disappoint, delivering two heroes representing two very different characters, both of which play a key role in this part of the story and are also two of the most powerful figures during this period of Middle-earth’s history, albeit not quite in the same way. I speak of course of Theoden, king of Rohan, and Treebeard, oldest and perhaps wisest of the Ents. How do the hero versions match up to the importance of these characters?
* Theoden (Spirit Hero, 12 threat, 2 willpower, 3 attack, 2 defense, 4 hit points):
The original, Tactics version of Theoden is one of the most controversial heroes this game has ever seen, provoking endless debates as to his utility. Regardless of where your own thoughts lie regarding Tactics Theoden, it’s safe to say that everyone can agree that there was a need for a new version of Theoden that more directly represents his status as king of Rohan. While Rohan is one of the oldest traits in the game, and there are several Rohan heroes floating around, it has long lacked a hero that actually aims to enhance and develop Rohan synergy. Spirit Theoden finally fills this role by reducing the cost of Rohan allies:
Sentinel.Reduce the cost of the first Rohan ally you play from your hand each round by 1 (to a minimum of 0).
Theoden differs from previous heroes that have served as the “leader” for their particular trait in that he does not boost stats like Dain Ironfoot or Celeborn. Instead, he reduces the cost of allies with the matching trait. This is actually a great choice for the designers to make in order to build Rohan synergy, as the Rohan deck type is all about discarding Rohan allies in order to trigger various effects. While this can work quite well, it can be quite resource-intensive. By lowering the cost of Rohan allies, Theoden therefore makes it easier to get allies into play more quickly and also makes it more palatable to discard them as well. For example, the Westfold Horse-breaker provides flexible action advantage, but can be quite expensive for its purpose at two resources, as Unexpected Courage allows for repeatable readying for the same cost. Spirit Theoden lowers this to one, which is far more reasonable. Even better, Theoden’s cost reduction has a floor of zero, rather than one, meaning that a Snowbourn Scout or Westfold Horse-breeder can be played for free. A free ally is one of the most underrated and most powerful things in the game, just from the perspective of chump blocking and action advantage, and Theoden opens up this possibility for Rohan. Having easy access to free allies also means that an event like Ride to Ruin is even more appetizing than it was previously, while Helm! Helm! is easier to pull off. In essence, you can think of Theoden as freeing up or “adding” one resource each turn, assuming you have a Rohan ally to play, that would not be available otherwise. I like the fact that the designers aren’t simply providing global stat boosts for each trait in the same vein as the Dwarves, Gondor, or even Silvan, but are exploring other possibilities as well. It should be mentioned that Theoden’s cost reduction ability also serves as a form of resource smoothing, as it can reduce the cost of Rohan allies from any sphere, not just Spirit. This ability does make dual and/or tri-sphere Rohan decks more efficient than ever before.
If there is a downside to Spirit Theoden and his role as “Rohan leader”, it is ironically the lack of global boosts that I have otherwise praised. While Dain, Celeborn, and even Leadership Boromir can transform allies of their respective traits into more than the sum of their parts, Theoden does not make existing Rohan allies more powerful. Instead, he just makes it easier to get them on the table. This means that Spirit Theoden is only as good as the state of the current Rohan ally pool. Admittedly, results are mixed. For example, while the Westfold Outrider is a strong ally both in terms of stats and ability, it would be tough to argue that allies like Snowbourn Scout, The Riddermark’s Finest, or the Westfold Horse-breaker are powerhouse contributors, especially in the absence of help with their stats. What this essentially means is that Rohan decks with Theoden must aim at emphasizing the heroes as the primary contributors in terms of questing and combat, while using the abilities of the Rohan allies smartly and strategically to fulfill certain support functions (i.e. managing locations, granting action advantage, etc.). Then, key events like Astonishing Speed can be dropped at crucial moments to turn the tide. On the plus side, more expensive Rohan allies that are strong in terms of stats, such as Elfhelm, Hama, and the Warden of Helm’s Deep, provide much more value for their cost. All told, Spirit Theoden certainly feels like the king of Rohan, and takes the trait to a new level of efficiency and power, but guiding a Rohan deck is not as automatic as piloting a Dwarf deck with Dain, for example, and the increase in power is more incremental than exponential.
Speaking of the pivotal role of Rohan heroes, how does Spirit Theoden hold up as a force in his own right? Well, his threat cost of twelve is one more than the sum of his stats, which probably reflects the power of his cost reduction ability, as well as symmetry with the Tactics version. Due to his balanced stats, Theoden can quest well, while being strong in both areas of combat. Of course, Spirit Theoden is actually worst at questing than his Tactics counterpart, which is a bit strange, but he still can at least make a solid contribution. It is in an attacking role that Spirit Theoden shines the brightest, with an attack of three that can actually increase to a Beorn-like five with the help of his sword, Herugrim. Two defense and four hit points, and especially the sentinel keyword, means that Theoden can also defend adequately, although he probably isn’t your permanent defensive solution, unless you plan on increasing his defense with attachments. Still, aside from Erkenbrand, Rohan hasn’t been too solid in terms of defense among heroes, so Spirit Theoden’s defensive competency is welcome. More than anything and despite Theoden’s propensity towards attack, if you are going to pay twelve starting threat for Theoden, which is quite high in Spirit, then you will want to get multiple actions out of him per turn. This means that Unexpected Courage and/or Steed of the Mark is an absolute must for this hero, and Westfold Horse-breaker can add even more action advantage.
In terms of traits, Theoden has the Rohan trait, of course, in addition to the valuable Warrior and Noble traits. The Rohan trait gives Theoden access to Rohan Warhorse or Firefoot, as well as the Spear of the Mark (the latter is probably not ideal with Theoden, as he won’t be making many staging area attacks, but it’s an option). In terms of events, Astonishing Speed can boost Theoden up to a strong four willpower, while giving a bonus to all other Rohan characters as well, while Forth Eorlingas! and Charge of the Rohirrim provide some combat options. The latter could be especially strong in conjunction with a mount and Herugrim, as Theoden could potentially attack for an amazing eight. The positive here is that Theoden’s cost reduction ability means you should have more resources available for some of these relatively expensive Rohan events, which was one of their main drawbacks previously. In terms of the Noble trait, Heir of Mardil is an intriguing option, especially when combined with Horn of Gondor, which works well in Rohan decks anyway. Since Theoden can make great use of action advantage, you could, for example, quest with Theoden, then use a Rohan ally as a chump blocker (or discard it to feed an ability) in order to trigger the Horn, giving Theoden a resource but also readying him with Heir of Mardil. Finally, the Warrior trait gives Theoden access to Captain of Gondor. This isn’t the most thematic choice, but can allow you to really get the most out of the king of Rohan by bumping up his defense to three and his attack to four.
Beyond trait-specific attachments, as previously mentioned, anything that grants readying is great with Theoden, such as Unexpected Courage. In terms of Spirit attachments, The Favor of the Lady is actually not the worst choice when combined with Herugrim. For an outlay of two resources, Theoden could quest for three for the rest of the game, while getting an additional point of attack when using Herugrim, making this equivalent to a +1 willpower/+1 attack attachment. For a similar reason, Celebrian’s Stone is a fantastic choice for Theoden, granting him +2 willpower/+2 attack with Herugrim. Thinking along similar lines, Miruvor makes for a strong match as well, as you can get added willpower or “attack” for Theoden in addition to the all-important action advantage.
Comparing the two versions of Theoden is not particularly fruitful, as they fulfill very different roles. Spirit Theoden is the superior choice if you are interested in running a Rohan-focused deck, as the cost reduction is too good to pass up and the strong stats and in-sphere access to Herugrim make him a true focal point. Tactics Theoden, by contrast, can be a strong choice if you are building a deck around Tactics while still wanting to quest, or are playing off of Tactics synergy in a multiplayer game (i.e. boosting up Mablung or Thalin’s ability to quest, to take one example). Tactics Theoden can actually make even better use of Herugrim as well, making him perhaps the stronger hero in terms of raw stats. Spirit Theoden, however, is my choice for better overall hero, if I was forced to choose. The more interesting comparison is in how Spirit Theoden stacks up against heroes like Dain Ironfoot, Celeborn, and Leadership Boromir, all of which are designed to lead their particular traits. He surely cannot match up against Dain, but that’s not really a fair comparison, as Dain is really an outlier in terms of raw power. I do think Theoden compares favorably against the more modest Celeborn and Boromir. Cost reduction is perhaps the better choice for Rohan than stat boosts when the tendency towards sacrificing allies is considered, and such cost reduction is quite rare to find among heroes. Only Grima does something somewhat similar, and it is for that reason that I actually built one of my favorite Rohan decks around that hero, and Theoden is better for this purpose in terms of sphere-matching. Ultimately, it’s worth reiterating that Spirit Theoden is only as good as the selection of Rohan allies, which is currently in a decent state, but could use a few more additions to be in a truly potent place.
Possible Attachment Choices: Herugrim, Unexpected Courage, The Favor of the Lady, Celebrian’s Stone, Captain of Gondor, Heir of Mardil, Steed of the Mark, Rohan Warhorse, Miruvor
* Treebeard (Lore Hero, 13 threat, 2 willpower, 3 attack, 3 defense, 5 hit points):
There are times when my position as a semi-objective reviewer is under grave threat from my status as a Lord of the Rings fanboy, and the release of a Treebeard hero is a classic case of this conflict. If you asked me throughout the life of the game which character I most wanted to see as a hero, Treebeard would probably have been on top of that list. It is also no secret that Ents are one of my favorite aspects of Tolkien’s universe, and while they have slowly started entering the game as allies, it was by no means certain that they would get a hero, especially given the fact that Eagles have never received a proper champion. Still, Treebeard has indeed arrived, setting my heart aflutter, and he possesses the power to trade damage for extra willpower or attack:
Action: Deal 1 damage to Treebeard to give him +1 and +1 until the end of the phase. (Limit 5 times per phase.)
While Spirit Theoden is focused around supporting decks and allies of his given trait, Treebeard is all about turning himself into an unstoppable force. This is a bit ironic as we have already seen a version of Treebeard in ally form that does indeed support “Ent decks”, at least in their currently limited form, by generating a resource pool that can specifically be used to pay for and ready Ents. The Treebeard hero, however, can exist in Ent decks and non-Ent decks alike, as he really has a universal ability that has little to do with what else you put in your deck, at least in terms of traits. By dealing damage to Treebeard, you can increase his already considerable willpower and attack up to gargantuan levels. In the article that spoiled Treebeard, designer Caleb Grace explained that this mechanic represents the great strain Ents face when exerting themselves in a “hasty” fashion that they are not normally accustomed to, but this strain can culminate in the legendary strength and fury that readers remembers from The Lord of the Rings. At its greatest limit of five, which is possible only if you increase Treebeard’s hit points with something like Ent Draught, Treebeard can have a nearly peerless willpower of 7 or an attack of 8. This is equal to the contribution of multiple heroes or characters combining together. However, perhaps the best aspect of Treebeard’s ability is the level of control that is possible. You don’t have to inflict the maximum damage on Treebeard, but can instead boost him just as much as you need for a given task, whether it’s getting those extra progress tokens you need or destroying a given enemy. This does allow for the flexible use of action windows. For example, when you commit Treebeard to a quest, you can wait until after staging to decide whether to inflict damage in order to boost his willpower, and can take just what you need for that given phase. Similarly, a sudden change in circumstances during combat, such as a shadow effect boosting an enemy’s defense or exhausting another character that you were counting on for their attack power, can be met with an increase to Treebeard’s attack strength.
There is, however, an obvious downside and limitation to Treebeard’s ability and that is the need to deal damage to him to activate it. This not only makes Treebeard more vulnerable to destruction and less able to serve as a safe defender, it also limits the possibilities for using the ability again in the future, at least until any previous damage is removed. This essentially serves as a “cost” for the ability, and it means that including healing in a Treebeard deck is an absolute must. So on the one hand you get a hero with willpower and attack strength that can be boosted to astoundingly high levels without the need for attachments. On the other hand, you need to devote deck space to healing in order to facilitate the consistent use of this ability. After all, if you are only able to damage Treebeard a few times throughout the course of the game, you are not getting full use out of his ability, and when you are spending thirteen starting cost for a hero, you need to make that sacrifice worth it. Fortunately, there are plenty of options in the Lore sphere for healing. Self Preservation is one of the best choices, as it can attach to Treebeard and allow for a consistent healing of two hit points per round (three with Elrond on the table). A few copies of Warden of Healing can remove a couple points of damage each round as well. In terms of more disposable options, Lembas is one of the best choices, as it not only provides action advantage, which can be difficult to find in Lore, but it also heals three points of damage (and recycling it with Erebor Hammersmith can work well). Keep in mind that you do need a Noldor or Silvan hero to play Lembas, with the in-sphere Mirlonde being a good option. If you have another Lore hero with easy access to readying, Pippin with Fast Hitch being an example, then Healing Herbs might also work well. Overall, it is imperative to draw one’s healing options and put them into play in order to make Treebeard function to his true potential, and ironically this detracts from one of Treebeard’s apparent strengths, which is his ability to access stat boots without the need for drawing and playing attachments. In other words, what really separates Treebeard from another hero stacked with attachments when in both cases you need to draw and play other cards in order to make the setup work? There are a few differences to consider. The first is that Treebeard’s boost can be used from the very first round without the help of other cards, it’s just that it will be more limited in terms of further uses until you draw your healing. Second, Treebeard is not as vulnerable to attachment hate, with the possible exception of Self Preservation. Third, the potential for the boosts is higher than most other heroes can match, even with attachments, as seven willpower and eight attack is really quite a high ceiling. Finally, Treebeard can boost both his willpower and attack, while most heroes have to specialize in one or the other (and while attack is relatively easy to boost, huge willpower boosts are more rare), giving Treebeard a flexibility that other heroes lack.
One final thing to consider is how Treebeard compares to hero Gimli. The two abilities might superficially resemble each other, as Gimli also uses damage to boost his attack strength. However, they operate quite differently in practice. Gimli’s boost in attack strength is a static and permanent value based on the number of damage in his “pool”. Treebeard’s boost in attack strength or willpower is temporary, lasting only for a phase, based on the damage dealt during that phase. The advantage to Gimli’s ability is that once it is activated, it does not need to be set up again. The disadvantage is that you have to contrive a way to get the damage on Gimli, and the damage needs to stay there, making him potentially vulnerable to unexpected death. The advantage to Treebeard’s ability is that it allows the player to put damage directly on Treebeard so that you don’t have to get the damage on him through combat or some other means. The disadvantage is that any boost is only temporary.
Moving beyond his ability, Treebeard’s stats are quite good, but you have to pay a premium in terms of starting threat. A starting threat of thirteen puts Treebeard at the same level as Elrond, and almost on the same level as Gandalf. In return, you get a hero that can quest decently for two, swing for three, and defend potently with three defense and five hit points. However, much like Spirit Theoden and other heroes with strong stats in multiple areas, you will need action advantage to get the most out of Treebeard. Unfortunately, such readying is much more difficult to access in Lore than Spirit, as Lembas is the only real option for Treebeard. This makes pairing Treebeard with Spirit and Unexpected Courage an ideal choice. Alternatively, one can attempt to maximize Treebeard’s utility simply by using him flexibly, questing with him when you really need the willpower and holding him back for combat when you really need help in that area. While this is feasible, and does show that flexibility has its own merits as compared to raw specialization, I still believe that you really need readying to make the starting threat of Treebeard worth the effort. Of course, since Treebeard’s ability is based off of boosting his stats, it is almost impossible to discuss just his base stats in isolation, so that while the starting threat of thirteen does accurately reflect the sum of his stats, ideally you should be getting much more value out of Treebeard assuming you are boosting his attack and/or willpower each round. The one strange wrinkle to Treebeard’s stat arrangement is that while he is perhaps best naturally suited for a defensive role, with high defense and hit points and in-sphere access to A Burning Brand, his tendency to constantly carry damage and his ability’s focus on questing or attacking, rather than defending, makes defense actually the purpose that he is least likely to be used for throughout the course of a game. In some sense, then, his high defense value might be seen as “wasted”. Still, it’s nice to have the option of using him as a strong defender when necessary, with A Burning Brand removing potential risk and action advantage allowing him to still fulfill some other function.
In terms of attachments, Treebeard cannot make use of restricted attachments, which invalidates the use of most weapons, armor, and some mounts. However, many attachments don’t have the restricted keyword, so that there are still many options open to Treebeard. Ent Draught is perhaps the first choice, increasing his hit points pool to seven and allowing for the full use of his ability. The aforementioned readying effects, such as Unexpected Courage and Lembas (or even other disposable ones like Miruvor or Cram), or healing options, such as Self Preservation, are also obvious choices. Beyond the obvious, Protector of Lorien is an interesting choice, allowing a player to boost Treebeard’s willpower even higher, in addition to his ability, which could mean that he could reach quite ridiculous levels (a potential ceiling of 10!). In terms of the Dunedain-themed Leadership attachments, which aren’t restricted, Dunedain Cache is perhaps the most intriguing, as this would give Treebeard the ranged keyword and the ability to apply his boosted attack to enemies engaged with other players. This also could potentially open the door to Hands Upon the Bow, which could be amazing with Treebeard’s boosted attack strength, but at that point you would be involving both Tactics and Leadership in addition to Lore, which makes the whole setup a bit more daunting. There are also two events that pique my interest a bit in connection with Treebeard. Don’t Be Hasty! would be thematic gold and could serve as a kind of de facto readying, allowing Treebeard to commit to a quest, but then ready if his willpower is not needed and combat ends up being more important. This still seems a bit of a marginal play but I plan on trying it out. The other event is Quick Strike. With easy access to attack strength that should be sufficient to kill most enemies by himself, Treebeard can make good use of that Tactics event to preemptively destroy foes.
Overall, Treebeard is a mighty hero that takes some support and strategy to use to his full potential. As such, he is not as directly powerful as top-tier heroes like Spirit Glorfindel or even Elrond. He can, however, be just as effective, but it’s important to take into account his limitations as a hero and the deck space needed to support his use. In this way, he appeals to my sensibilities as a player, as I enjoy heroes that are a bit complicated to use and require important decisions to be made during the course of a game. He can fit into almost any deck in terms of his ability and stats, although his starting threat does limit this versatility. At the end of the day, Treebeard is a hero whose power will grow as players learn best how to use him.
Possible Attachment Choices: Self Preservation, Lembas, Unexpected Courage, Protector of Lorien, A Burning Brand, Dunedain Cache, Ent Draught
With Treebeard and Spirit Theoden filling up the hero slots, no one can accuse The Treason of Saruman of being a boring or unsatisfying release. These two heroes both open up several intriguing deck possibilities, and this is essentially the fuel of the LOTR LCG community in many ways. Fortunately, neither hero “breaks the game” or is overpowered, as they both include limitations to work around and deck building wrinkles to consider. Therefore, in terms of the heroes alone, The Treason of Saruman is a top-tier release if you value interest and creativity over raw power.
Readers, what are your thoughts on Spirit Theoden and Treebeard? How does Spirit Theoden rank against other heroes that lead their particular traits? How much does he increase Rohan’s status as a trait? Just how powerful is Treebeard?