The Wastes of Eriador: Allies Review
New cards are here! New cards are here! After starting off the party by reviewing Spirit Merry to within an inch of his life, it’s now time to pull out the allies from The Wastes of Eriador and give them a chance to prove their quality. The beginning of a cycle is always exciting, as we get our first taste of what might be in store for us in the future. Support for Dunedain and Noldor has been promised as the main focus of the Angmar Awakened cycle, however every cycle always contain a sprinkling of support for a variety of traits and The Wastes of Eriador certainly shines in this respect. Whether or not these particular cards will have an enduring place in the card pool is a whole separate matter and it to this question that we turn our attention to now.
* Ingold (Leadership Ally, 3 cost, 0 willpower, 1 attack, 1 defense, 3 hit points):
Gondor gets the first bit of attention with a questing ally whose willpower is tied to resources:
Ingold gets +1 for each hero you control with at least 1 resource in its resource pool.
This ability of course fits in quite nicely with the way that the Gondor archetype works, which is providing benefits based on the presence of resources. I’m of two minds about Ingold. On the one hand, he is a strong piece for Gondor decks. Since a true Gondor deck will probably focus in on both generating and holding onto some resources, and since a true Gondor deck using Leadership will probably include Leadership Boromir, who needs to keep at least one resource in his pool anyway for his own ability, Ingold will almost always have at least one willpower. If you add in other relevant attachments for the archetype, like Visionary Leadership and Leadership Boromir’s ability, then Ingold becomes a 2 willpower, 2 attack ally with 3 hit points at minimum. If you can manage to have at least one other hero with one resources in his pool, then he becomes a 3 willpower ally with these attachments, which is absolutely fantastic. However, I like to take the minimum case as the baseline for judgment to really decide if this ally is worth inclusion and justifies his place in a Gondor deck. In a non-Gondor deck, Ingold’s case is a bit more flimsy. In many cases, players spend most of their resources each round if they are not running a deck with resource generation, and this means that Ingold will probably muster only about 1 willpower each turn, maybe 2 willpower at most. A 2 willpower ally for 3 cost is actually fairly decent and typical for the sphere, but a 1 willpower ally for the same cost is a bit more suspect. Still, I do really like the 3 hit points, and the value of hit points on allies has only increased as quests place a bigger focus on archery and direct damage. A single point of both attack and defense is also handy. In the end, for non-Gondor decks, Ingold’s inclusion probably comes down to the type of deck you are running, whether or not you have resource generation/manipulation, and whether Leadership is a minor sphere (only one hero). There aren’t a ton of strong Leadership allies out there that aren’t tied to a certain trait or deck type (Ingold himself of course is tied to Gondor), so he actually might warrant a place in many, if not most, decks with Leadership. As a final note, keep in mind that you can attach Sword of Morthond to Ingold, as with all Gondor allies, to give him an Outlands trait, although Outlands decks don’t really need the help.
* Ranger of Cardolan (Neutral Ally, 4 cost, 2 willpower, 2 attack, 2 defense, 3 hit points):
We don’t get neutral allies very often, so anytime a new one is released, it’s definitely an exciting moment. The Ranger of Cardolan provides further support for the Dunedain trait and its focus on engaging enemies. In this case, engaging an enemy allows the Ranger of Cardolan to enter play outside of the planning phase:
There are two main ways to evaluate Ranger of Cardolan: as an ally played normally during planning and as a temporary ally that lasts for one round. As for the latter, let’s take apart this ability a bit to see just how useful it can be during a game. First, it is important to note that the effect is tied to a very specific trigger during a very specific part of the turn. The Ranger of Cardolan can only be put into play after an enemy engages, which will usually happen during the encounter phase. Of course, there are certain encounter card effects that can force an enemy to engage you during other parts of a turn, such as a treachery that pulls an enemy out or an enemy card that engages you based off of certain triggers, but these are the exceptions. What will likely be a more common way to circumvent this timing in a Dunedain deck is using Dunedain Hunter to engage with an enemy from the top 5 cards of the encounter deck and then using that engagement as a trigger to play Ranger of Cardolan for one. However the Ranger enters play, you then essentially have a temporary ally that lasts until the end of the round, akin to Gandalf or Elrond, for a cost of one. Unlike those other temporary allies, Ranger of Cardolan does not have any useful abilities, but rather is simply an ally with strong stats. His stat line is actually identical to characters like Haldir of Lorien and Gimli. Since you are only able to avail yourself of this character for one round, however, really you are paying 1 for just one of these stats. In other words, you are paying 1 for an extra 2 willpower during questing, an extra 2 attack during combat, or a defender who can probably survive many attacks (which can be superior to chump blocking in many cases to avoid effects that punish chump blocking). Of course, you do have the flexibility of choosing whichever is most beneficial to you during a given round, and this kind of choice works the same for any temporary ally, including the big G (perhaps Ever Vigilant could work here to ready the Ranger). Overall, this kind of flexibility paired with a strong ally is certainly useful, and since any hero/sphere can pay for it, there’s even more versatility. For some added value, you could even use Ranger of Cardolan with A Very Good Tale, after he readies during the refresh phase but before the end of the round, to bring in some more allies. For some final added wrinkles, if you can get Ranger of Cardolan into play during planning (like with Dunedain Hunter), then you can put Born Aloft onto him to retrieve him back to hand before the end of the round so that he is not shuffled back into your deck. Also, if you pair Ranger of Cardolan with Horn of Gondor, he can essentially be put into play for free, as he will pay for himself when he leaves play.
What about paying for Ranger of Cardolan outright? Although 4 resources is expensive, the fact that the Ranger is neutral means that any hero can pay for him, which makes this cost a bit less onerous. The stat line is also impressive enough to justify the expense, even without an ability, and unlike the other unique allies with similar strength, you can get have several copies in play at once, which would be quite powerful. If you can get his neutral, Dunedain buddy with the same stat line, the Ranger of the North, also into play, then you could have some serious power on your hands. In terms of traits, the Dunedain trait already has some synergy and will likely acquire some more as the cycle continues, and the Heir of Valandil can already lower the cost of the Ranger of Cardolan. The ranger trait also has a few uses. For example, if you needed to really clear out a location and didn’t have a ready ranger character available, you could put the Ranger of Cardolan into play after an enemy engages, and then play Expert Trackers in response to the same trigger to put progress on a location. This is a bit of a marginal use but does add a bit more flexibility. Altogether, the Ranger of Cardolan is a valuable ally whose greatest strength is probably his versatility and ability to fill a variety of roles in response to many different situations. There is a restriction, though, in that only a deck with at least one Dunedain hero can use this ally’s ability. Still, while the Ranger of Cardolan is not a must-include in every deck or even every Dunedain deck, he is definitely worth a look and falls firmly into the “strong” category. If nothing else, having an emergency valve in case you end up engaging one too many enemies is an underrated ability.
* Honour Guard (Tactics Ally, 2 cost, 0 willpower, 0 attack, 1 defense, 3 hit points):
Spoiler alert: Honour Guard is my pick for best ally of the pack. There are a few reasons to delve into this choice, but let’s first take a look at the Honour Guard’s unique damage cancellation ability:
The ability to cancel damage has increasingly become a part of the Tactics sphere’s repertoire, seemingly in response to the increasing use of archery and direct damage effects by encounter decks. Cards like Gondorian Discipline, Close Call and Raven-winged Helm (the latter card can also found in this pack) all provide a way to cancel damage. Such cancellation serves as a de facto form of healing, but also helps to protect characters from unexpected damage, such as that inflicted by shadow effects or treacheries, and can even save a hero from death in the most dramatic cases. How does Honour Guard hold up as a form of damage cancellation? The initial point of entry is higher than with Gondorian Discipline and Close Call, both of which cost zero, although Close Call does “cost” threat. On the other hand, in return you get repeatable damage cancellation rather than the disposable kind, and it is always available to you as long as Honour Guard is on the table. This cancellation can serve a broad variety of purposes, from nullifying a point of archery damage to saving a squishy one hit point questing ally from being killed by an encounter card effect to blocking damage from a shadow effect to countering attack strength on an enemy that has been boosted. I could easily imagine making use of this ability every single round against recent damage-heavy quests like Journey in the Dark, The Weather Hills and Helm’s Deep. Even against scenarios that don’t feature this focus on damage, there would certainly be utility if you consider just why player losses occur. Generally, one of the way players lose is through the loss, unexpected or otherwise, of a hero. Honour Guard provides an extra layer of security for heroes, and I’m a huge fan of backup plans and emergency measures, which perhaps biases my perceptions of this card. The picture becomes even rosier with multiple copies in play. With 2 or 3 copies of Honour Guard, you could cancel out bigger chunks of damage to a single character or take on multiple sources of damage.
All of this is without even discussing the valour effect, which is the emergency option to end all emergency options. With this ability to cancel up to 5 points of damage, you can save a hero from a monstrous shadow effect, like those ludicrous ones that boost the enemy’s attack by five, six, seven, or even more based on some element of the game state, or from some other encounter card effect. You could even take advantage of this effect to take a huge attack undefended and then simply cancel 5 points of the damage. This use definitely opens up some options. While you could simply chump block with the Honour Guard itself, chump blocking is rapidly becoming an endangered species as the punishments are often too severe, so the valour option is a better choice in most case. Of course, there are some downsides to Honour Guard. Paying 2 for this form of damage cancellation means that you have to delay playing something else. This cost is exacerbated by the fact that the Honour Guard doesn’t offer much else, as he can’t quest, attack, or reliably defend (unless you make use of the Gondor trait with Visionary Leadership and/or Leadership Boromir). Still, the Honour Guard opens up a realm of new possibilities, such as building a Beorn deck that can allow him to defend as much as possible, using his ability while cancelling some of the damage that slips through. This interaction is actually a nifty way to circumvent the immunity that Beorn is saddled with, as the Honour Guard’s effect targets damage rather than Beorn himself. Honour Guard also helps to potentially dispense with, or at least mitigate the need for, shadow cancellation and/or healing. More to the point, it gives Tactics a better shot of making do without those effects and spheres and being able to survive in its own right. As a final point in the Honour Guard’s favor, those allies that tend to become staples are those that are both relatively cheap (two cost seems to be the sweet spot) and have an ability that covers a fundamental aspect of play in a way that is unique and can’t be accomplished better through other means. Honour Guard seems to meet these criteria. With a fairly robust card pool now, I would hesitate to call this ally a true staple, as it will be more and more difficult for any card to earn that distinction as decks continue to diversify and greater options exist, but it does get closer than any other ally in this pack to that label. As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that the Honour Guard does have a sizable hit points pool of 3, which makes him a fantastic damage soak.
* Curious Brandybuck (Spirit Ally, 2 cost, 2 willpower, 0 attack, 0 defense, 2 hit points):
Just as there must be a best, there must also be a worse, and unfortunately the Curious Brandybuck is my pick for worst ally of the pack. How does this poor little Hobbit earn this dubious distinction, especially from a loud and proud Hobbit fan? The Curious Brandybuck is a solid questing ally with a fairly unique ability, or rather an ability and a drawback:
Curious Brandybuck is the kind of card that takes a bit of thinking to wrap your head around. In essence, this is a 2 willpower ally that you can cheat into play for free after traveling to a location. This would be worthwhile for a couple of major reasons. One would be simply for a free bit of questing help, albeit of the temporary variety. The second reason would be to use Curious Brandybuck as a chump blocker. The thought behind this latter use would be to hold Curious Brandybuck in hand as an emergency option in case an enemy were to appear that you weren’t expecting or couldn’t handle during the quest phase, and then you could pop this Hobbit into play to defend against that enemy during the combat phase. This option is made even stronger by the fact that the Curious Brandybuck can be put into play under any player’s control, which means he becomes more valuable in multiplayer, where you can lend him to a player that needs defensive help. The main problem with this use, however, is that chump blocking has become more and more dangerous as shadow/encounter card effects increasingly key off of characters being destroyed. This change in the meta does make Curious Brandybuck less useful as a defensive option than he would have been in the past, and Spirit has actually become better defensively of late as well. If Small Target wasn’t restricted to heroes, then I would have loved the idea of using Curious Brandybuck in conjunction with that card, and my opinion of this ally would be much higher as well, but alas, that is not to be.
What to my mind really destroys the value of Curious Brandybuck is the forced effect that forces you to place him on the bottom of your deck when the active location is explored. This penalty of course makes sense in conjunction with his response, but it also means that if you simply pay for Curious Brandybuck outright, he will be forced to leave play as soon as you explore a location. The conclusion here is that you will never play him conventionally and that does lessen his value, considering that cheating him into play temporarily only nets you 2 willpower or a chump blocker. 2 points of willpower is certainly useful, but Spirit is positively swimming in 2 willpower allies these days. I would surely put Ethir Swordsman, Galadriel’s Handmaiden, Arwen Undomiel, and West Road Traveller ahead of Curious Brandybuck. Each of these allies are also 2 cost allies with 2 willpower and all have a useful ability. Curious Brandybuck could actually crack this lineup potentially if I could simply play him outright, since he is one of the few 2 cost/2 willpower allies with 2 hit points, but the forced effect kills this notion. Of course, an astute player might argue that he shouldn’t be compared to these allies, but rather to zero cost events (or other temporary effects) that provide willpower, as that is perhaps a better comparison. Even in those terms, though, and even with the flexibility of acting as a defender, I don’t think Curious Brandybuck holds water. I would rather just spend the 2 resources for a permanent 2 points of willpower or even just 1 resource for a Silvan Refugee that may eventually leave play but will probably give me more rounds of value. I just don’t know if there’s deck space for willpower of this kind in a Spirit deck when I can get more durable sources for a moderate cost.
The one saving grace of this ally may be in decks centered around allies leaving play. For example, Curious Brandybuck could ready Imrahil when the active location is explored and he leaves play. He could also generate a net resource gain of 1 with Horn of Gondor, give Eomer some extra attack, or help to draw cards with Valiant Sacrifice. Such a deck seems like the best fit for Curious Brandybuck, along with a Hobbit deck that can take advantage of Halfling Determination or Hobbit Pipe in combination with another Hobbit body. It is nice, admittedly, to have another non-unique Hobbit ally available for Hobbit decks, particularly for those players that prefer to stay faithful to certain traits when building a deck. Curious Brandybuck, then, is not a complete coaster, at least for certain decks, but it likely won’t find its way into the majority of decks with Spirit either.
* East Road Ranger (Lore Ally, 3 cost, 1 willpower, 2 attack, 1 defense, 3 hit points):
The East Road Ranger is a well-balanced ally for 3 resources, with the potential to be a truly great quester when pitted against a side quest:
It’s plain to see that the East Road Ranger provides fantastic value when side quests are around, as 3 willpower for 3 cost is peerless in Lore (in fact, for most spheres). However, the very fact that this value and extra willpower is connected to side quests does place it firmly in the conditional camp and places a question mark over this ally as a whole. There is little doubt that the East Road Ranger will be valuable throughout the Angmar Awakened cycle, as side quests are a prominent feature, and often I have found myself struggling to clear side quests in a timely fashion. In fact, I often end up leaving side quests around because it is better to keep focused on the main quests, especially if the progress I make won’t even be enough to finish the side quest in question. In other words, I really want to defeat a side quest in a single round or not at all. The East Road Ranger can definitely help in this respect, as 2 copies of this ally contributing 6 willpower, for example, might just make all the difference in plowing through a side quest. On the other hand, obviously previous cycles did not use side quests, as these are a new card type, and we don’t know what the future holds. If side quests are limited to this cycle and do not pop up again in the future, then the East Road Ranger’s conditional willpower boost will certainly be quite limited in value and scope. Abilities that are tied to aspects of certain scenarios, such as the readying of Ever My Heart Rises (conditional on the mountain or underground trait) or the threat reduction of Dwalin (keyed to the orc trait), tend not to have a lasting place in the meta, and I fear this may be the case for East Road Ranger.
On the other hand, players also can include their own side quests in their decks, and this does temper the conditional nature of the ability a bit, in a way that separates the East Road Ranger from other such cards. Putting a side quest like Gather Information in your deck would be analogous to being able to throw an orc card into the encounter deck for Dwalin or a mountain location for Ever My Heart Rises. Essentially, East Road Ranger can allow you to more reliably and quickly complete a side quest so that you can access the benefits it provides. Of course, how useful this turns out to be all depends on the quality of the side quests we receive. Gather Information and Scout Ahead (the latter is also included in this Adventure Pack) are both strong, as are some of the others that have been spoiled, but whether deck space can be found for an ally whose main purpose is to finish side quests rather than to help with the normal quest stages that are required for victory is a whole separate matter, and the final verdict on that point will have to wait for the future. I will say that I’m glad to see specific cards that interact with side quests just from a game design and deck building perspective.
The real question to ponder is whether East Road Ranger is worth inclusion without the extra willpower boost. At the risk of driving the same point into the ground over and over again, the answer to this question has really changed with the growth of the card pool. Just as Curious Brandybuck does not have as much value as a 2 willpower questing ally as he would have in the past, the 2 attack of the East Road Ranger isn’t quite as meaningful as it would have been when the selection of Lore allies was much smaller (I have chosen attack as the main focus of analysis, as 1 willpower is enough to contribute but not great, while the East Road Ranger isn’t really a viable defender in most cases). As it is now, even just among non-unique allies, Mirkwood Runner, Harbor Master, Ithilien Lookout, and Ithilien Archer all have 2 attack for the same cost. If you add in the unique allies, there are even more options. With this in mind, choosing between these 3 cost allies with decent attack is really a matter of deciding which abilities really work best for your deck. It may be that side quests and extra questing power in any form is a main consideration for you, in which case the East Road Ranger certainly makes sense. On the other hand, it may be that you would rather have the defensive help of Harbor Master or the enemy manipulation of Ithilien Archer, for example. The point is that East Road Ranger is not necessarily worse than other similar allies. At the same time, it isn’t clearly better. It falls firmly into the “it depends” category. What I do really like is the strong bank of 3 hit points, which outshines the East Road Ranger’s competitors, most of whom have 2 hit points. These hit points allow for emergency defending against weaker enemies or soaking up direct damage/archery.
Importantly, the East Road Ranger is yet another piece for the developing Dunedain deck, which does mean that its cost can be reduced by Heir of Valandil. Getting this ally into play for only 1 or 2 resources would be huge and definitely would increase the value. There aren’t too many other effects that key off of the Dunedain trait specifically for allies or boost Dunedain characters in some way, but if such effects do emerge in the future, then the East Road Ranger will become better. As it is now, this ally does at least allow for more thematic Dunedain decks. The presence of the Scout trait could also be meaningful in the future if there is more support for that trait. All in all, East Road Ranger is a useful ally, but falls short of greatness.
The allies in The Wastes of Eriador Adventure Pack are certainly intriguing, with a mix of Hobbits, Rangers, and Gondorians. It is the latter that is perhaps the most surprising, but it is nice to see Gondor continue to get support long after the Against the Shadow cycle has ended. Even better, while all of these cards can fit into decks focused around their traits, they all have more general applicability as well, which prevents them from being instantly useless to wide portions of the player base. On the other hand, as a group, this is not the strongest set of allies around. This assessment isn’t a harsh one in my opinion, but simply reflects the reality that we are at the start of the cycle, and the power of player cards tends to increase as a cycle moves forward. And this is also not to say that these allies are worthless either, far from it, as each can fit into certain decks and pull their weight. With all that said, I look forward to seeing where the rest of the cycle takes us.
Readers, what is your favorite ally in this pack? What is your least favorite ally? Which is the most powerful? Which is the least powerful?