For as often as the word “thematic” gets thrown around in the LotR LCG community, there’s not really an accepted definition for the term. A lot of times, it’s used as a synonym for “tribal”–a word which describes decks built to focus on a single (usually racial) trait like Silvan or Gondor.
But traits don’t capture the whole meaning behind “thematic”. Most would consider a Merry / Pippin / Treebeard Ent-based deck to be thematic, even though it has two Hobbit heroes. Most would also readily accept an Aragorn / Legolas / Gimli “Three Hunters” deck under the “thematic” umbrella, even if it had no trait focus at all. These decks are based in specific events in Tolkien’s narrative, after all, so it would be strange to reject them as thematic departures.
But what if we take that thematic Ent deck through the sailing quests in The Grey Havens & Dreamchaser Cycle? Is it still a thematic deck? The mental image of Ents sailing ships on the open ocean definitely strains Tolkien’s original vision. Then again, is it that much worse than taking those same Ents Across the Ettenmoors or even to the Siege of Gondor?
What if we were to replace Merry and Pippin in that Ent deck with Éowyn and Bifur? It’s still an Ent deck, right? Is it still thematic? Why does changing two cards make us want to re-evaluate whether or not this deck deserves “thematic” status? I’m sure we could invent an alternate set of events in which Bifur and Éowyn stumble into Fangorn together.
Plus, the Lord of the Rings is a story about all of The Free Peoples coming together to overcome the Shadow. Tolkien didn’t put up artificial barriers between bringing Legolas and Gimli together when he wrote The Lord of the Rings; why should we work so hard to keep Elves and Dwarves apart in our decks?
But then doesn’t that mean that any deck could be considered thematic, essentially rendering the term useless?
I need a definition
I’ve stated that I want to focus this blog on using thematic decks to beat Nightmare quests. In order to do that, I’m going to need a definition for what actually makes a deck thematic, so I can know whether or not I’ve achieved my goal.
I think ultimately what people want to point out when they say that a deck is thematic is that during the deck’s construction, some mechanically superior cards were rejected for reasons based in Tolkien’s fiction rather than anything within the game itself. It’s kind of an explanation for why certain clearly superior cards were left in the binder. “Thematic” implies that the deck was built with a subset of the card pool, rather than the whole thing.
Which subset is determined by the theme that the deck author is trying to achieve. The theme of a deck can be as simple as “silvans” or as complex as “the events of the fourth chapter of The Return of the King“. It doesn’t technically have to be based in Tolkien’s narrative, actually; your theme also could be something like “dwarves holding things up“.
Essentially, a theme is a constraint on card selection based on the art or names of the cards rather than game mechanics. A thematic deck, then, is any deck that is built with the additional constraint of a theme.
So back to that Éowyn / Bifur / Treebeard Ent deck. Do we count it as a thematic deck, or not? The overwhelming majority of the deck follows our theme of building an Ent deck. Plus, it’s not like there are that many thematic choices for heroes to pair with Treebeard–is he doomed to be carting those little Hobbits around forever?
Let’s not be hasty. Many people who enjoy building thematic decks still find it is necessary to include cards that don’t fit their chosen theme as well as they’d like. Sometimes you just need the resources provided by Steward of Gondor. Or maybe, as in Treebeard’s case, you just don’t have that many options and you’re forced to fill in the corners with something a little off the mark.
Let’s call these cards thematic concessions–cards that were included in the deck even though they don’t actually fit the deck’s theme. This lets us be a little less rigid about our definition of what constitutes a thematic deck.
When building a thematic deck, we have the subgoal of trying to minimize the number of thematic concessions, but we don’t always have to get this number down to zero. The fewer thematic concessions made, the more thematic we may consider the deck to be, but this makes “thematic deck” less of a binary and more of an ideal to strive towards.
Internal and external theme
So far my definition of “thematic” has been entirely internal to the deck’s composition–it’s a function of the way a deck is constructed, and therefore has little to do with how the deck is played. But that doesn’t account for the cognitive dissonance we feel when we take our highly thematic Ent deck on a sailing quest, or bring a bunch of Eagles through Moria.
This adds an additional layer of theme to consider: Does the theme of the deck mesh well with the theme of the quest that you’re playing it against?
There are a lot of factors we might consider when trying to fit deck themes to quest themes:
- Location: Where does the quest take place? Is it reasonable for the characters from the deck to be in that place?
- Time: When does the quest take place? Were the characters in the deck alive (or of an adventuring age) when the quest occurs?
- Motivation: Does it make sense for the characters in the quest to be doing whatever it is the quest has them doing?
- Continuity: If you just played the previous quest with one set of characters, does it make sense for other characters to continue that errand in the next quest?
Your answers to these questions are going to end up being pretty subjective, and depend on how far you’re willing to suspend your disbelief. One person might find it reasonable to bring an alternate-history Balin along to a Journey in the Dark to help fight the Balrog, while others might find it a bridge too far.
The relative importance of these questions will also vary from person to person. For me, imagining a bunch of Ents traipsing through Moria creates greater cognitive dissonance than pretending that Thorin never died at the Battle of Five Armies (oops, spoiler alert) or that Beorn might still be lumbering about the Carrock while Aragorn is searching for signs of Gollum.
So about that definition…
Clearly, the word “thematic” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In the context of this blog, when I say I’ll be using thematic decks to beat nightmare quests, here’s the thematic measuring stick I plan to use:
- My decks will have a clearly stated theme, and this theme will be in some way based on my understanding of Tolkien’s fictional world.
- I will strive to minimize thematic concessions. I’ll call out any that I do have and explain why I felt they were necessary.
- Whenever possible, I will attempt some level of thematic agreement with the quest, striving hardest for agreement with the quest’s location, since I find that one most personally compelling.
That’s an awful lot of constraints. Surely one can’t hold to all of that and still build competitive solo decks, right?
That may have been true of the card pool at one time, but it’s not anymore.