Arts of the Enemy: Part 1 (Gaining A Foothold)
During the Council of Elrond, it was the lord of Rivendell himself that warned against examining too closely the ways of darkness. After Gandalf related the fall of Saruman, Elrond cautioned:
It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill.
Such advice is wise when facing down a Dark Lord or taking the fate of the world in your hands. However, for the purpose of getting better at a game that can often be quite punishing, we are going to be casting these wise words into the fires of Mount Doom, with all due respect to Elrond. In this new article series, I am going to be focusing on the other side of the coin from the Deck Building 101 series: gameplay strategy itself. While deck building gets a ton of attention and is certainly an important aspect of LOTR LCG, making the right decisions when playing is equally important if you hope to avoid a grisly fate.
In Part 1 of Arts of the Enemy, I will be taking a look at one of the most crucial parts of the game: gaining a foothold in the first few rounds so that you are not swept away. I would argue that the early game is the most vital part of a game of LOTR LCG for the vast majority of scenarios. Getting established quickly and effectively is often the difference between a more and less powerful deck or player.
This sounds great in theory, but how exactly can you become a master of the early game in practice? Read on to follow this three step program!
The following steps are indeed in an order of priority:
- Mind your defense
Long-time readers of this blog know that I tend to place a high priority on defense. The reason is simple. In my experience, if you are able to deal with enemy attacks, then you usually have the foundation you need for victory. If you don’t have such a plan, then things will likely not go as well for you.
In practical terms, you should have a specific plan in case you are forced to defend an enemy your very first turn. This may vary based on the quest you are playing (perhaps there is a quest where you know there will be no enemies to start, or conversely where you have to face an army), but in general terms, you should anticipate being able to deal with at least one enemy attack, somewhere in the range of 3 to 4 attack strength.
So on your very first turn, you should plan to leave at least one hero back for defensive purposes. If your deck does not have viable defensive heroes, or you are planning to put all heroes forward for the quest, then you need to prioritize playing out at least one ally that can serve as a defender. Working backwards, this means that you need to include a good number of low-cost (1 or 2) allies in your deck for this purpose.
Certain quests start off even more intensely, in which case you will have to plan for defending two enemies. This will entail either putting out one ally and leaving one hero back or leaving two heroes back from the quest.
Of course, this commentary relates mainly to solo play. In multiplayer, your deck will probably be specialized, in which case you might be either might be able to ignore defense completely or have to plan to handle multiple enemies from the very first round.
- Know the magic questing number
The amount of willpower that you need for the opening rounds of a game is something that can vary widely depending on scenario. Some quests start with barely any threat in the staging area, while others can pile it on from the beginning and never let up. There also is the overall “pace” of a quest that must be considered, meaning the speed at which players must progress through it to avoid various negative effects.
Keeping all this in mind, you should have a clear target in mind of how much willpower you need to have at your disposal in the opening rounds of a game and how much you need to commit. Generally, I regard 5-7 willpower as the “magic number” for the very first round of a game, with 5 being the acceptable minimum, 6 being the standard I usually aim for, and 7 being the number that questing-focused decks can achieve. Why this number?
Consider that we can assume that each encounter card will average somewhere between 2 and 3 threat (again, this number can be higher for more difficult scenarios and potentially lower for easier scenarios). Since scenarios generally start with the equivalent of one encounter card per player in the staging area and then one encounter card per player will be added during the staging step of the first quest phase, you will probably be facing an average of 4 to 6 threat during the first round. Of course, there is the possibility of drawing a treachery, which usually carries no threat, but you can’t rely on such an eventuality. Winning consistently means planning for worst case scenarios, not banking on reprieve from the encounter deck.
So how do you reach the magic questing number? There are a few different combinations that are possible. The easiest to control is selecting a trio of heroes that can get you to 5-7 willpower. This could be two heroes that combine for that total or all three if you plan on having readying avaiable or will be using an ally as your defensive plan. Alternatively, another sample configuration would be having a hero with 3 or 4 willpower questing and also playing an ally with 2 willpower as part of your first planning. This is one reason why cheap (1 or 2 cost) allies with 2 willpower are so essential to a deck that plans on questing well and questing well early.
I should at this point say that there are certain deck types that don’t necessarily need or want to hit this “magic number”. Instead, they often will plan on failing the first round of questing in order to prioritize getting set up instead. This particularly applies to those decks that feature heroes with “support” abilities that focus on getting a deck up and running (such as card draw or resource generation), but often have lower stats, including willpower. This is certainly a viable deck type and strategy. However, if you find yourself struggling to build a consistent deck, then it might be wise to follow the more straightforward approach outlined here and work up to potentially more advanced strategies that aim to ramp up on a slightly different curve.
- Know the magic attacking number
Yes, there is indeed a magic attacking number, which I will outline shortly. It is also important to note that I do prioritize attacking beneath defending and questing. While it is certainly important, covering the other two aspects of the game are essential, while you can survive for a few rounds without strong attack power if you can simply “tank” (defend attacks over several rounds).
I wouldn’t stress this point too much, however, as being able to kill enemies efficiently is definitely the third pillar of a successful deck and strategy, in order to prevent enemies from building up to the point you become overwhelmed, and to free up characters for questing.
So what is the amount of attack strength that you need for the first turn or so of a game? This, possibly more than defending or questing, is heavily dependent on quest. However, I find that against many quests, 6 is the number that defeats most enemies. This can often be achieved by having two heroes (or possibly a hero and an ally) with 3 attack strength each, but other combinations are certainly possible.
There are certain scenarios that begin with a certain enemy in play, and this enemy may have a defense and number of hit points greater than 6. In this case, if you are looking to get established quickly, then the magic number is simply the number you need to defeat the enemy in question, since defeating that enemy will be key to gaining a permanent foothold. A recent example is Sahir’s Ravager from the Raid on the Grey Havens scenario, who starts in play, and has a defense of 3 and hit points of 5 for a magic attack number of 8. I found success when I settled on a hero combination of Glorfindel and Beorn that could get me the 8 from the very first turn.
When combining the need for a certain attack strength with the demand for a willpower of 5 to 7 and at least one defender, it might seem that there aren’t enough bodies to meet your attack needs. This points to exactly how critical readying effects are for the early game, with those readying effects attached to heroes coming at a special premium. This also shows exactly why Spirit Glorfindel has both been applauded and derided as an ever-present member of decks, because with his 3 willpower and 3 attack, he gets you halfway to where you need to be in terms of questing and attacking if you get Light of Valinor on him. Beorn, the other aforementioned hero, is also an amazing early game hero, because he covers one defense without exhausting while contributing a chunky 5 attack strength.
Putting It All Together
In order to show how all this works, let’s look at a sample set of the first round of two games against two randomly chosen scenarios (excluding Saga quests, since the extra Fellowship hero throws off the normal calculations a bit). I will use two very different decks to also show how strategy can vary depending on the deck you are using.
Example #1: Trouble in Tharbad
Deck: Fortunate Sons (Leadership Aragorn, Leadership Imrahil, Theodred)
Initial staging area: Spy from Mordor (40 engagement cost, 2 threat, 3 attack, 2 defense, 4 hit points)
Opening Hand (after mulligan): Strength of Arms, Galadriel, Warden of Helm’s Deep, Veteran of Osgiliath, 2 copies of Envoy of Pelargir. Faramir is the first card drawn.
Planning: Before playing a single card, I need to think through my three areas to see what is covered and what needs help in the form of allies or attachments.
- Defense: This deck actually uses chump blocking as its main form of defense. Since chump blocking necessitates playing an ally, I will need to play an ally this round to make sure I am covered for at least one attack. As a backup plan for a second attack, either Aragorn (who will ready using his ability), or Imrahil (who will ready after a chump blocker is destroyed) can serve as a second line of defense.
- Questing: I can quest with all three heroes, especially since two of them have ways to ready for combat. This gives me a total of 5 willpower for the opening round of questing. That hits my minimum, although I could potentially look into other ways of boosting it if I want it higher. There is only 2 threat in the staging right now, and given an average encounter card reveal of 2 to 3 threat, I will probably make 1 progress or break even, which is fine for the opening round.
- Attack: The “magic number” here seems to be 6, since the initial enemy has a total defense and hit points of 6. Aragorn will ready after questing and has 3 attack strength. Imrahil will ready after an ally is destroyed and also has 3 attack strength. Together, they can hit 6 attack, as long as neither has to defend.
Here, you can see that the deck has already been constructed to hit all three areas needed to establish an effective foothold, as long as I can get a chump blocker on the table. This is why it makes for an effective deck.
In terms of planning then, getting an ally out is a non-negotiable. I therefore will play Envoy of Pelargir for 2, with her enters play ability throwing a resource on Aragorn who has the “noble” trait.
I have two resources to spend now, and Theodred will give me another during the quest phase. I will go ahead and play the other copy of Envoy, adding a resource to Aragorn once again. What this does is give me potentially another layer of defense, or an extra point of willpower to bump me up to 6.
Questing: Following my plan, I will quest with all three heroes. I will also throw in one copy of Envoy of Pelargir for a total of 6 against 2 in the staging area. Aragorn will ready with the resource from Theodred. I reveal an encounter card, which is…
- Seedy Inn: A 3 threat location
This means I make a total progress of 1, which is placed on the active location (the Empty Mug, which started in play as the active location).
Encounter: With 5 threat in the staging area, a high threat location in the staging area, and an active location that is not yet cleared, I need to get the Spy from Mordor’s threat out of the staging area. Fortunately, I have the tools to deal with him, so I will engage this enemy.
Combat: I will use the other, ready copy of Envoy as the defender against the Spy. The shadow card has no effect, and the Envoy is destroyed. This readies Prince Imrahil. Together, Aragorn and Imrahil have enough attack strength (6) to destroy the enemy.
Conclusion: I now have successfully established a foothold against the quest. The board is cleared of enemies, which means during the next round, I should only have to worry about one enemy at most (barring surge or treachery effects). My next priority will be increasing the willpower total so that I can overcome the 5 to 6 threat that I will likely face during the next quest phase in order to clear out the active location. To this end, I can play Galadriel or Faramir.
**Players will notice that I left out the presence of Nalir, in order to show how to approach a quest without the help of an objective ally.**
Example #2: The Massing at Osgiliath
Deck: Sting Like A Bee (Tactics Merry, Lore Pippin, Sam)
Initial staging area: Snaga Scouts (1 threat), Wolves from Mordor (1 threat), Wainriders (2 threat)
Opening Hand: Halfling Determination, Gandalf, Mablung, Taste It Again!, Dagger of Westernesse, Daeron’s Runes. Another copy of Daeron’s Runes is the first card drawn.
Planning: Again, I need to take stock of the situation before deciding what to play:
- Defense: Sam is my primary defender for this deck, with chump blocking as a secondary option. Due to its low starting threat, this deck will likely only need to face one attack this turn, which will come from the copy of Snaga Scouts in the staging area. That enemy only has 1 attack, so Sam should be able to defend against it successfully. He won’t be able to hit my target of 4 defense, since I don’t have a Hobbit Cloak yet, but his 1 defense should serve (he won’t be able to get his +1 bonus since the Snaga Scouts’ engagement cost is not higher than my threat). I will consider getting an ally onto the table as a backup for defending in case I draw a second copy of Snaga Scouts.
- Questing: Normally, I could count on questing with Sam and Pippin as my mainstays for a total of 5 willpower, which hits my minimum, with Sam popping back up to handle defense with his ability. However, in this case, Sam can’t do both since his ability will trigger, so I will have to decide between committing Sam to the quest and trying to get an ally out as a defender, or holding Sam back for defense and purposefully failing the quest for this first turn, which is a valid option as long as it doesn’t raise my threat high enough that I have to engage a second enemy. Thankfully, I do have two copies of Daeron’s Runes in hand to pull out some more options. A readying effect (i.e. Fast Hitch) would be key here.
- Attacking: Merry is the primary attacker for this deck, and getting him equipped with a couple of copies of Dagger of Westernesse is usually enough to achieve the “magic number”. In this case I likely won’t be able to hit 6 soon, but the first enemy I need to deal with has 0 defense and 2 hit points, so Merry should be able to take care of it on his own.
With all this in mind, I will first use Daeron’s Runes to fill out my options. This is why card draw can be so clutch in the early game: it helps you grab the pieces you need to complete your opening strategy. Keep in mind that Massing at Osgiliath is the consummate “early game rush” scenario, as it aims to attack players quickly with multiple enemies. As such, it is a good test for a deck or player to see how successful they can be at eking out the early foothold (of course, there are now more difficult quests in that regard, but Massing remains a good benchmark).
The two copies of Daeron’s Runes yield Fast Hitch, Elrond, Errand-rider, and Feint. I end up discarding Elrond and Halfling Determination. This is a fantastic draw as Fast Hitch is the readying I need and Feint opens up some options as well.
The first priority is getting readying on the table so that Sam can cover both questing and defending this round (especially since there aren’t great chump blocking options beyond Errand-rider, who I actually want to use for its ability, which is crucial in a tri-sphere deck). I will play Fast Hitch on Sam. I would have played the Dagger on Merry to make him closer to the attacking magic number, but now that I’ve drawn Feint, I will keep his resource handy to cover a second defense, if necessary. Instead, I will wrap up by playing Errand-rider. This ally can be an emergency third defense, but really his role is for future turns.
Questing: Now that I have readying available, I will commit Sam and Pippin to the quest for a total of 5 willpower. I will not use Fast Hitch yet, because I actually might want to find a way to trigger Sam’s natural readying ability, and then use Fast Hitch afterwards to gain a total of two readies instead of just one. 5 willpower against 4 threat in staging will probably mean that I will fail the quest, but thanks to Pippin’s boosting of enemy engagement costs, even if my threat goes up a bit, I should still be fine. The encounter card is revealed and it is…
- Uruk Vanguard: A 2 threat enemy
I would’ve preferred to draw a location to get a bit of a reprieve from enemies, but this one has moderate threat and a high engagement cost, so I’m fine with this reveal. I fail the quest by 1, raising my threat by 1.
Encounter: My initial plan was to only engage one enemy: the Snaga Scouts. But now with readying from Fast Hitch and Feint, I can cover two defenses, which is what I will do in order to clear out the staging area a bit and prevent a build-up. I will optionally engage the Wainriders, which have a higher threat than some of the other options. With an engagement cost of 38, Sam readies and gets a +1 to his stats, while I draw a card from Pippin (Daeron’s Runes, which I use to draw Beorn and an Errand-rider, with the Errand-rider being discarded). The Snaga Scouts have already come down on their own to their forced effect, not triggering anything due to an engagement cost of 1.
Combat: This is where the magic happens, and where it is important to consider the timing of effects in order to maximize the number of actions you can perform. First, I will play Feint on the Wainriders, so that they cannot attack at all. Then, Sam will defend against the Snaga Scouts, with the shadow effect not being applicable. He takes no damage. I will then ready him with Fast Hitch.
Sam and Merry will then combine to destroy the Wainriders. Sam has an attack of 2 thanks to the boost from engaging Wainriders, while Merry has a base attack of 3, giving me a total attack of 5. Now, for my next trick, Merry will ready Sam through his effect, which readies a fellow attacker when an enemy is destroyed. Sam can now use his 2 attack to destroy the Snaga Scouts. Crucially, I planned this whole sequence out from the moment I drew Fast Hitch and Feint, seeing that these would allow me to defend and destroy 2 enemies. Looking at your cards and planning several phases ahead is essential.
Conclusion: This is obviously a trickier deck and scenario than the previous one, yet the overall approach remains the same. Building from a foundation of defense (covering at least one attack, preferably two), I aimed to cover a decent amount of questing for the first round, while figuring out ways to reach the attack numbers I needed, either through holding a character back or readying. I would definitely classify this as a successful attempt at gaining a foothold, as two enemies have been dispatched and only one of the original remains. The staging area has been pared down to 3 threat, and I should be able to build from here.
Sally Forth and Try It Yourself!
Getting down this basic strategy will help you to become a better deck builder and player. In terms of deck building, have a first turn strategy in solidly in mind when building the deck and selecting your heroes. Make sure the three areas are covered in some fashion, or that you are least building towards them in the near future.
From both examples, it should be clear how incredibly important readying effects are for the first round and the early game in general. Most effective decks include some form of readying. The only other viable alternative is to have a deck that draws enough cards and generates enough resources from the very first turn that it can pump out allies that can cover the three bases instead.
A few caveats are in order. First is that this article definitely reflects my own playstyle and way of approaching the game and other players may have a different take. Second is that 0bviously this article was mostly meant with the solo player in mind, but in multiplayer, similar considerations should be going through your head, it is just that you might not need to have a plan for one or more of the bases if other players are specialized in those areas and you are not. Communication and planning among players in this regard is key, such as asking each other during planning, questions like:
- How many enemies do you think you’ll be able to defend against this round? How many do you think we’ll face?
- How much willpower do you think you’re going to be throwing in (roughly)?
- How much attack power do you think you’ll be holding back?
Also, this article doesn’t account for less conventional decks and quests, but those strategies can wait for a future article. What is important is that this baseline approach of planning for the first few rounds and having a complete first round strategy in your head before the game even begins is what can take your game to the next level if you find yourself struggling. It can be valuable to take the approach I did and even just play the first round against a few scenarios with a deck and see how it goes, get a feel for what decisions you made and whether they worked out, and if anything needs to be tweaked in terms of the deck or your decision-making.
Until next time, some say it is foolish to stare too deeply into a palantir, but I say polish that bad boy up, grab some popcorn, and peer until you make the Enemy squirm!