It’s pretty common to hear people talk of cards as being “staples” or “binder fodder”. Generally these terms are used to describe the versatility of cards. Staples are cards whose utility is immediately clear just by looking at them, and as such they find their way into a lot of different types of decks. On the other hand, if a card is binder fodder its utility is extremely niche in nature. As a result it is rarely included in decks, consigned instead to spend the rest of its lonely days taking up space in the back of the binder.
These terms typically refer to the mechanical utility of the cards, but there’s no reason we can’t apply them to the cards’ theme as well. Some cards are more or less thematically versatile than others, fitting into either a wide variety of decks or a very narrow few.
Let’s look at a few examples
In my mind, the ultimate thematic staple is Gandalf—any version of him, since theme doesn’t really change much with mechanics. It’s pretty easy to justify the inclusion of Gandalf in just about any deck. He’s a wanderer who spends his time rallying all the free peoples of Middle Earth against the Shadow. It’s not hard to imagine him puffing on pipes with a bunch of Hobbits, lounging in Lórien with a group of Silvans, or walking through the wilderness with a troupe of Dúnedain. He’s been everywhere, knows everyone, and seems to be behind everything.
Even better than that, his Core set incarnation is a mechanical staple too. Core Gandalf can help cover you if you need threat reduction but can’t justify The Galadhrim’s Greeting. His direct damage and high stats can solve all kinds of problems that your chosen theme might struggle with. And if nothing else, it never hurts to have a little more card draw! Core Gandalf is an A-grade fixer.
Aragorn is also a thematic staple. That guy has been everywhere. He was raised in Imladris, so he’s right at home in a Noldor deck. He fell in love in Lothlórien, so he’s certainly no stranger to Silvans. He’s the captain of the Dúnedain, who make it their sworn duty to protect Hobbits (and other peoples of the Shire and Bree). Call him Thorongil and he’ll gladly take up arms in a Rohan or Gondor deck. He’s even been to the East, so we can use him in that Harad deck we’re all hoping we’ll get this cycle. The only people he doesn’t make a habit of hanging out with is Dwarves.
I call this the wandering Aragorn rule: “Aragorn is assumed thematically appropriate in every deck until proven otherwise.”
Gandalf has a similarly named rule; I’m sure the reader can work out the details.
So what about binder fodder?
To be honest, I’ve always found the term “binder fodder” to be a bit harsh. In reality, there are very few cards that are truly useless. You’re certainly not going to get good value out of Radagast in your average Noldor deck, but if you’re relying on expensive Eagles to do your combat for you, his resource generation effect might pay off after a few turns (especially if you consider that you’re paying for his 2 willpower as well). You could even make use of his Istari trait and pull some shenanigans with Wizard Pipe or Word of Command. Is Radagast mechanically niche? Definitely. Mechanically useless? No.
When we’re building theme decks, we can get even more use out of mechanically niche cards. Take poor, maligned Hero Dori, for instance. As a 10 threat, Sentinel defender in Tactics with a defense-focused ability, it’s natural to compare him to Beregond. Unfortunately, he just doesn’t measure up. All Beregond needs is a Gondorian Shield (which is free with his ability) and a little readying and he can defend everything on the table until the Mûmaks come home. For Dori to pull off the same feat, you still need the Shield (which you now have to pay for) and another Hero, preferably with 3 defense. Then you’ll have to exhaust both of them to defend once, never mind defending multiple times.
But in a thematic Dwarf deck, Beregond is no longer invited to the party and suddenly Dori seems a lot more attractive. Just slap some Ring Mail or a Dwarven Shield on him, and he’s just what you need to reliably tank the Balrog. Now you don’t have to chump with those precious, precious Dwarf Allies. You stay above 5 Dwarves in play, keep your ridiculously efficient Ally army humming, and everybody’s happy. Dori most of all, since it gets cold and dark in the back of that binder.
So theme decks can actually help us get more use out of our varied card pool by making certain mechanically niche cards more relevant. Nice!
But it’s not all sunshine and pipeweed
Theme decks don’t make every card easier to use, though. Some cards are thematically niche, and it can be difficult to find them a loving thematic home, even if they are mechanically fine. Take Beorn, for example. As of now, we only have one other Beorning character—Beorning Beekeeper—so a Beorning deck isn’t a viable option. In addition, Beorn is such a minor character in The Hobbit that he doesn’t clearly fit anywhere; you could toss him in a Dwarf deck, although he wouldn’t synergize well. He would fit in well in a “Battle of Five Armies” themed deck, I guess. But his insular nature and minor role leave him feeling a little out of place just about everywhere.
Ghân-buri-Ghân has a similar problem. He’s the lone Wose in today’s card pool. You might put him in a Rohan deck, as his primary role in the Lord of the Rings is to show the Rohirrim the shortcut to Gondor. But this feels a little feeble since the Woses generally fear the Rohirrim. Unless we’re building an Elfhelm deck to reenact that scene from the book Ghân-buri-Ghân just feels out of place. Na’asiyah’s Corsair trait introduces similar problems when taken out of the context of the Dream Chaser cycle. And where do Woodman and Isengard characters fit in?
There also exist some traits which have plenty of Allies, but lack a suitable number of Heroes to lead them. Who do you put in charge of an eyrieful of Eagles, for example? It’s fun to imagine Boromir soaring into battle mounted on the back of a great eagle, blasting away on the Horn of Gondor, but it does stretch Tolkien’s original vision just a bit. What about the Dale trait? I’m still hopeful that we’ll have a self-sufficient Dale deck someday, but we don’t have quite enough Heroes for it just yet. Ents have a similar problem. Sure, you could go with Merry / Pippin / Treebeard, but then what deck does the Treebeard Ally fit into?
Lest we think that all theme problems are caused by uncommon cultural traits, there are also a few Events with weirdly specific names that like to cause problems. If you squint hard enough, it’s probably not too hard to justify Gildor’s Counsel in any old Noldor or Hobbit deck, whether Gildor himself appears in the decklist or not. But what about Radagast’s Cunning? The Brown Wizard keeps to himself for most of the Lord of the Rings. What sorts of decks can justify their reliance on his cunning?
But I want to use all of my cards
Fortunately, we have a few options to help us bring these thematically wayward cards back into the fold. The easiest thing to do is to use the power of thematic concessions. We can have a few cards that are a little off theme sometimes and still call our deck thematic. So just stick Hero Beorn in your Ent deck and call it a day. I’m sure Treebeard would love the extra company.
But if we’re not satisfied with that, there is another option: by building decks with a locale in mind (I typically use the locale of the quest that I’m playing) we can expand the number of cards that match the theme. If your Silvan deck is “set” in Mirkwood, then suddenly those Woodman characters don’t feel so out of place. Maybe Radagast’s Cunning isn’t so weird in your Mirkwood deck either. Decks that have a setting can be more inclusive of these thematically niche cards so that they have a chance to shine when they might otherwise be banished to the back of the binder, never to be seen again.
Next week I will put this principle to use in Conflict at the Carrock, giving several thematically niche cards a chance to have their moment in the sun!