Deck Spotlight: I Am No Ally
Although Spirit Merry has recently been released and I’m just beginning to consider the wide realm of possibility opened up by this new hero, there also are a few other decks that I’ve been tinkering with for awhile. No matter where we’re at in the game’s release schedule, there’s always a collection of “experimental” decks sitting around, waiting to be perfected. One of them is a deck centered around the Over Hill and Under Hill ally version of Gandalf and it’s gotten to a point that it’s now at least worth sharing. This deck is a bit of an unconventional one, as its main purpose is to build up one particular ally, rather than the heroes, and to ride that ally to the promised land of LOTR LCG success.
“I Am No Ally” is a deck featuring the heroes Glorfindel (Spirit), Bilbo, and Galadriel. Of course, the real star of the show is OHaUH Gandalf and this is where the name of the deck comes from. Just as Eowyn declared to the Witch King, “But no living man am I…”, I could imagine Gandalf in this deck shouting that he is no mere ally, and indeed Gandalf in this deck functions more as a fourth hero than an ally. The deck is fairly light on allies, only including a few powerful unique characters. This choice was made for both deck building and thematic purposes. In terms of deck building, the number of attachments and events needed to really make this deck operate effectively doesn’t leave much room for allies. As far as theme is concerned, a deck built around a single ally would lose some of its flavor by drowning him in a sea of other allies. I wanted to investigate instead what it would be like to only include a few unique allies, specifically those representing some of the strongest characters in Middle-earth. Of course, there isn’t really a clear story uniting these heroes, as they were chosen purely for gameplay purposes, but I do like the idea of this deck representing Bilbo rubbing shoulders with some of the Wise, perhaps setting forth from Rivendell with them at some point. Maybe even Bilbo travels with a revived White Council to record their deeds.
Total Deck Size: 52
Expansions Needed (11): Celebrimbor’s Secret, Foundations of Stone, The Hunt for Gollum, Over Hill and Under Hill, The Antlered Crown, The Voice of Isengard, The Watcher in the Water, The Road Darkens, The Treason of Saruman, 2nd and 3rd Core Set
Theme: Card Draw, Threat Reduction, Recursion, Boosting Gandalf Into An Unstoppable Force of Nature
Spheres: Spirit/Lore (Heavier emphasis on Spirit, with a healthy dose of Neutral cards)
Solo or Multiplayer?: Built with solo in mind, but can operate in multiplayer
Strategy: If you understand that this deck is all about Gandalf, then the strategy of this deck should be fairly clear to you. However, because the hero lineup can put you into a bit of a rough spot initially due to the lack of a solid hero defender (Glorfindel can’t be bothered, Galadriel can’t defend at all, and Bilbo needs some help) and a paucity of allies, careful piloting is needed to veer towards victory instead of defeat. Specifically, the ideal opening hand is one that contains Gandalf and Light of Valinor. Then, your first two turns of planning are set. You play Light of Valinor on the first turn, saving the other two resources. This reserve allows you to drop Gandalf on your second turn. Having Light on Glorfindel right out of the gate gives you enough willpower to tread water initially, and keeps our favorite Elf ready in case he needs to make an emergency defense or attack. Since this deck is all about Gandalf, it also makes sense to get him onto the table as soon as humanly (Istarily?) possible. Turn two is the goal. Keep in mind that the extra card draw from both Galadriel and Bilbo means that you can start with nine cards in hand instead of seven on turn one, which gives you a good chance of starting with these two cards.
The gods of LOTR LCG are fickle sometimes, however, and you may not get so lucky. In this case, the massive card draw of this deck will bail you out eventually, as long as you can stem the tide until Gandalf gets powered up. Your ultimate goal is to attach Gandalf’s Staff, Shadowfax, and Self Preservation onto Gandalf. Once he has these three attachments, he can quest, attack, and defend every round (or quest and attack/defend twice), with Self Preservation healing any damage he suffers while defending or through encounter card effects. Gandalf’s Staff can serve as a de facto A Burning Brand, removing a shadow card from the enemy he defends, or can help in the early game to generate resources to pay for some of these expensive cards. For this reason, Gandalf’s Staff is probably the first of the three Gandalf attachments I want to get into play, and a card that I’d love to see in my opening hand or the first couple of rounds. Once Gandalf has his attachments, you should be able to ride him to victory. Don’t forget that Flame of Anor is also included as an extra readying option for Gandalf, allowing you to get even more value out of the key character of this deck, and it also can boost his attack by decent amounts given the prevalence of fairly expensive cards.
Of course, the biggest problem with using OHaUH Gandalf is that he raises your threat by two additional points at the end of each round. In order to combat this extra threat, there are a variety of threat reduction effects in this deck. Galadriel herself can cut off one of these points of threat each round. Then, Elrond’s Counsel and The Galadhrim’s Greeting can take care of the rest, while Dwarven Tomb allows you to recycle these events. The recursion of Dwarven Tomb is not just valuable for threat reduction, though, as it can also recycle A Test of Will to help avoid treacheries that might scupper the deck or Hasty Stroke to cancel out those shadow effects that are truly game-ending.
With Gandalf, Glorfindel, and a couple of the unique allies taking care of combat, there is the small matter of mustering enough willpower to win a game, especially without an army of allies. The beauty of this deck is that Gandalf and Glorfindel account for seven willpower by themselves without having to exhaust a single character. When you add in Galadriel and Nenya, this increases to 11. Putting a few of the unique allies in this deck into play can increase this willpower total even more. The final piece of the puzzle is Protector of Lorien. You may notice that this deck runs three copies of many unique attachments (i.e. Light of Valinor, etc.). Although this deck has the card draw needed to draw these attachments quickly, I still find it prudent to include three copies of these attachments to increase the odds of seeing them quickly. This choice then raises the question of what to do with a hand full of these duplicates, and this is exactly where Protector of Lorien fits into the picture. In the mid-to-late game, you should be able to easily dump three cards to Protector without losing anything, which is the equivalent of a three willpower questing ally on the table. Of course, Protector can also double as a means of defense, but it’s really here to add to the questing potential. With all of these pieces in place, this deck can generate the willpower needed to win without using a bunch of characters, which can be a boon against cards like Biting Wind.
How It Was Constructed: The initial idea was fairly simple: build a deck around OHaUH Gandalf, loading him up with attachments. This idea sprung from a desire to experiment with highlighting an ally as opposed to any of the heroes and OHaUH Gandalf was the best candidate. My first versions of the deck were hampered by the lack of readying attachments for allies. I experimented with Spare Hood and Cloak, but it just wasn’t enough. It was the release of Shadowfax in The Treason of Saruman, therefore, that gave this deck the final element it needed to function. I say this because a deck focused around a single character needs to get as many actions out of that character as possible to be effective, and Gandalf being able to quest, attack, and defend all for four is monumental.
Of course, while I keep saying that the focus is on just one character, this isn’t strictly true. The choice of heroes was incredibly important in helping this deck to actually function. First and foremost, the only chance this deck has of working is getting the key attachments into hand as quickly as possible. If you have to stand around waiting for them to appear (or even Gandalf himself!), then the whole show comes to a dramatic halt, and it’s also important for there to be consistency in this respect as well. With this in mind, I really needed heroes that could provide card draw. I decided to go all-in on this respect, choosing Galadriel and Bilbo. With these two heroes, I could be sure of drawing three cards per round (the usual draw + one each from Galadriel and Bilbo). This kind of draw without having to play a single card is huge. I can’t stress that enough. After a few rounds, you will be sitting with a good chunk of cards in your hand, especially when you add Daeron’s Runes to the picture. What this draw does is to essentially facilitate a four card combo (Gandalf, Self Preservation, Gandalf’s Staff, and Shadowfax), which would otherwise be way too inconsistent to be feasible. In fact, it would be otherwise pretty preposterous to expect a four card combo to function at all reliably. Leaving aside card draw, Galadriel also has the benefit of helping to deal with the threat gain caused by keeping OHaUH Gandalf in play. As for the final hero, Glorfindel was unfortunately the final choice once again. He helps the deck with threat management by lowering the starting threat and combines perfectly with Gandalf as he also can quest without exhausting. With just these two characters (and Light of Valinor), you can be sure of both questing and attacking for at least seven each round.
1) Gandalf + Self Preservation + Shadowfax + Gandalf’s Staff: These four cards are the core of the deck. From a defensive perspective, you have a perfect solution, as Gandalf can defend for four while nullifying a shadow (Gandalf’s Staff), healing any damage inflicted (Self Preservation), and then readying for either another defense or attacking (Shadowfax). Gandalf’s Staff is flexible, however, and can also help generate resources for expensive cards, perhaps even some of the other attachments in this combination. Self Preservation, besides being used to heal damage from defending, can also allow Gandalf to serve as a damage soak for archery and other direct damage. To sum up, an ally that can generate resources and quest, attack, and defend all for four is not only on par with most heroes, but better than most heroes.
2) Saruman/Elrond + Galadriel: Both Saruman and Elrond are unique allies with great stats that unfortunately can only stay in play until the end of the round. In most cases, this means that they can only use one of their stats. Galadriel, however, enables them to quest without exhausting so that they can also attack or defend later in the round. This interaction enhances the willpower potential of the deck, while milking every bit of value out of the few allies that are included. It also leads to some insane combat potential. Saruman, Glorfindel, and Gandalf, for example, can combine for 12 attack strength, felling a mighty foe together or splitting up to kill several foes. Elrond can serve as a strong defender after questing, or contribute to attack as well. It’s also worth mentioning the abilities provided by these allies. Saruman essentially removes a non-unique enemy or location in the staging area from play until the end of the round. This ability is a bit underrated, and it can serve as a neat way to get this deck out of some tight spots. For example, enemies or locations might pile up in the staging area while this deck is trying to get its feet off the ground and Saruman can help deal with the situation by removing something from play to facilitate questing or avoid a flood of enemies, while his stats can contribute to getting the enemies that remain out of play. Elrond, on the other hand, can help with healing or card draw, but his main purpose is to get rid of those condition attachments that might undermine this deck against certain scenarios.
3) Arwen + Gandalf: Why not give Gandalf another point of defense? If you are playing multiplayer, Arwen can give Gandalf sentinel to help other players out.
4) Treebeard/Quickbeam + Ent Draught + Gandalf: Ent Draught can help bump up Gandalf’s hit points so that he can defend against some of the biggest foes, but you’ll need one of the two unique Ent allies in this deck to play it.
5) Protector of Lorien + unique duplicates + Will of the West: All the duplicates of unique cards that end up in hand due to card draw can be used to fuel Protector of Lorien. I generally like to put the first copy of Protector of Lorien on Glorfindel, who can use the attachment to essentially become a six willpower quester at times. The second copy can go on Bilbo to so that he can serve as a strong backup defender or to help out with questing. Either way, it allows the little Hobbit to pull his weight a bit more, although he is around to draw cards more than for any other purpose. With lots of card draw and after discarding many cards through Protector of Lorien, you may find yourself coming down to the end of your deck and running low on Protector fuel. This situation is where Will of the West can prove useful to reset your deck.
6) A Test of Will/Hasty Stroke + Dwarven Tomb: Even the best deck can meet its match in a treachery or shadow effect that is just nasty enough to send it reeling towards defeat. A Test of Will and Hasty Stroke can provide some insurance against such effects, with Dwarven Tomb recycling them so that you always have the insurance you need. Of course, this same approach is possible in almost any Spirit deck. The real difference here is the card draw that makes sure you get these cards into hand on a more consistent basis. Keep in mind that Dwarven Tomb is also useful to recycle the threat reduction effects, which is invaluable to manage Gandalf’s threat gain. When these start to run out, you can refresh everything with Will of the West.
Variations: As with any deck, there are some possible variations to this deck. Below are some of the most interesting:
* Beravor: Beravor can easily slot into this deck to replace Bilbo without much other tinkering needed. In solo play, Beravor can make the card draw even more insane, adding two additional cards each round instead of one. Of course, you have to exhaust Beravor instead of getting the automatic draw of Bilbo, but since Bilbo doesn’t do much in this deck anyway, Beravor can simply exhaust each round and you won’t really be losing anything. When you do need her contribution more than card draw, she can help out in any area of play, and she can even take on one of the copies of Unexpected Courage to both draw cards and participate in questing or combat. All of this comes with only one extra point of starting threat. So why in the name of Eru did I pick Bilbo instead of Beravor? Those focused on optimization may cringe to hear it, but the choice really came down to theme. Bilbo fit better into the story this deck told in my head than Beravor. To put it another way, I really just wanted an excuse for Bilbo to pal around with Gandalf. However, while Beravor is the better choice, Bilbo still performs quite nicely in this deck. The main time I would switch Bilbo out for Beravor would be when playing against the more difficult quests or when playing multiplayer (the latter situation really demands the change).
* Asfaloth: Sure, Glorfindel could use his horse to put progress on locations, and this is a must when facing location-heavy scenarios, but otherwise I’d rather include other cards in the deck, since I should have enough questing power to not worry too much about location control. Still, consider Asfaloth a firm member of the sideboard.
* Wizard Pipe: I did originally have this attachment in the deck, mainly because I liked the idea of piling yet another attachment on Gandalf. The purpose of the Wizard Pipe would be to switch a high cost card onto the top of the deck in order to control the attack boost provided by Flame of Anor. This is certainly a valid use, and would work well since this deck has a lot of cards in hand to choose from, but it just felt like one step too far. Useful yes, but somewhat of an extravagance. Still, it might be worth a try.
* Expert Treasure-hunter + Hidden Cache: If this deck has one weakness, it’s in getting cards out quickly, since Gandalf’s Staff is the only resource generation and it requires seven resources in its own right to become operational (Gandalf + Gandalf’s Staff). Many of the important cards in this deck are expensive, which can exacerbate this problem. I originally included Expert Treasure-hunter + Hidden Cache to add some further resource generation, but with so much card draw Expert Treasure-hunter felt redundant and I usually always just ended up drawing Hidden Cache.
* Imladris Stargazer + Zigil Miner: These two provide another resource generation option. However, it would require adding a number of copies that would push other cards out, in addition to diluting the unique ally theme, and so I haven’t yet tried this option.
* A Good Harvest + Steward of Gondor: This combo is probably the best of the resource generation alternatives. A Good Harvest can give you the resource match you need to pay for Steward of Gondor, and then the rest is history. Galadriel is probably the best choice for Steward, as with Nenya she can pay for both Lore and Spirit cards. It may seem like a bit of a dodgy combination, but once again card draw is clutch here in allowing you to get both of the cards into hand in a timely fashion. This is a pairing that I will probably be experimenting with fairly soon.
* Gandalf + Word of Command: With Gandalf sitting around with plenty of actions, you should be able to spare one to enable Word of Command (Saruman is also available for this purpose). However, due to the card draw of this deck, I haven’t found this kind of fetching effect necessary.
* Mirror of Galadriel: The Mirror is a glaring omission in a Galadriel deck, yet as with Word of Command, the extra retrieval seemed redundant.
* Elf-stone: It’s intriguing to envision Elf-stone as a way to save resources for this deck, as you could more easily get allies like Treebeard, Saruman, Elrond, and even Gandalf into play, while saving money for other purposes. Whether or not this is a good enough play to justify the space with so few allies is the only question.
* Noiseless Movement: Finally, besides resources, the other major weakness of this deck is getting hit with a tough enemy before everything is up and running. Generally, the low starting threat helps to avoid this issue, but it’s not foolproof. Noiseless Movement is a decent backup plan to fend off a thorny enemy, assuming you can draw it in the opening hand.
Final Thoughts: Although there are many options for deck building in this game, and the number of possible decks is growing all the time, sometimes it can feel repetitive to follow the same old approaches where heroes are built up into superheroes or an army of allies is dumped onto the table. This deck tries something a bit different by treating one ally as if he were a hero, while relying on a small squad of powerful characters to carry the day. The main weakness of this deck is a lack of resource generation, at least initially, coupled with the high cost of cards. This leads into a related issue, which is that the deck can take a few rounds to get up and going, which renders it vulnerable to an early swarm. On the other hand, once it is rolling, it’s really hard for this deck to run aground with strong questing and combat ability, great card draw, plenty of cancellation, and enough threat reduction to avoid the dreaded 50. So the next time you’re feeling bored, give this deck a try, put on your best Gandalf voice, and declare, “I am no ally!”.