My post on Nightmare The Seventh Level is still in the works, but this past week I accidentally found myself ruminating on a slightly different topic that wanted to get out of my head first: shoring up weaknesses in archetypes.
This subject started tumbling around in my mind after I listened to last week’s episode of The Grey Company Podcast. If you’re not already familiar with the Grey Company Podcast, you should definitely go check it out—it’s an excellent place to go for metagame analysis and thoughtful commentary. In last week’s episode, the hosts were giving advice on different deck archetypes that listeners were having trouble getting to work.
During the episode, the hosts kept coming back to the question of whether or not it really makes sense to adhere strictly to a single archetype. Not all archetypes can cover every area of the game equally well, after all—if they could, the game would lack variation. The question then becomes: If archetype-focused decks necessarily lack the tools required for certain parts of the game, why build them at all? What end are we trying to achieve by trying to stick to an archetype?
Everyone’s answer to this question is going to be different, but for me the answer lies in the challenge of finding a way around each archetype’s weaknesses. Creative constraints—such as closely adhering to a particular mechanical or thematic archetype—provide a starting place to help get my mental gears turning as well as a goal to drive towards. Many of the greatest pleasures of deckbuilding are equal parts creative expression and puzzle solving.
Solving the archetype puzzle
The key challenge with most archetype decks lies in finding a way to cover the archetype’s inherent weaknesses. No deck can be truly perfect, of course, but it’s often possible to build decks in such a way that their weaknesses do not get in the way of them achieving victory. The key is to identify what goals the archetype is having trouble meeting, and then focusing on what cards it has available to it that can help it reach those goals. It seems like a simple concept, but it’s not always straightforward.
In order to examine this idea, I’m going to do a deep dive into a single archetype, analyzing its weaknesses and exploring several ways in which those weaknesses could be mitigated. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use a trait-focused archetype, but the same general concepts could be applied to any archetype, from “2 Hero decks” to “Voltron Hero decks” to “Valour decks”.
Let’s dive in.
Rohan: a case study
The bulk of Rohan-related cards are found in three spheres: Spirit, Tactics, and Leadership. The core mechanic among Rohan Allies is that you can discard many of them to trigger effects, like placing progress on Locations or cancelling Enemy attacks. It’s pretty easy to find willpower in the Rohan stable with Heroes like Éowyn around, along with plenty of inexpensive Allies who boast 2 willpower. There are lots of options for covering combat, too, with the Leadership cards leaning a little more heavily on defense while the Tactics cards lean a little more heavily on offense. With cards like Herugrim and Golden Shield around, it’s even possible to turn some of that willpower into combat potential as well.
There are two key areas in which Rohan struggles, however: The first is that it can be difficult to keep enough Allies in play when they’re being discarded all the time to trigger their effects. The second is that Rohan lacks easy access to card draw, so it tends to run out of cards to play as the game wears on.
First, let’s look at trying to keep enough Allies in play to maintain control over the board state.
Keeping a stable full of Allies
The key problem here is cost. Most Allies require between 2 and 3 resources, which is pretty much a whole turn’s worth. They’re a reasonable price for their stats, often offering up at least a 2 in either willpower or attack, but the trick is in figuring out how to safely use their discard-from-play abilities. Even if I’m aiming to discard only 1 Ally every other turn, maintaining a strong board state is going to get expensive quickly.
The most obvious solution to this problem is Spirit Hero Théoden, who reduces the cost of the first Rohan Ally played each turn by 1. Pretty straightforward. But even if I get tired of good ol’ Santa Théoden, I can still solve the problem with some traditional resource acceleration courtesy of one of the many Leadership Rohan Heroes. Théodred makes an excellent choice because of his built-in resource acceleration, but any of the other Leadership heroes would work as well. Access to resource generation cards like The Day’s Rising and Captain’s Wisdom can help me generate some income to keep the Rohirrim coming. Depending on the circumstances, I may be able to make good use of Hero Gríma and/or Keys of Orthanc, too.
Another thing I tend to look at when I find that my Rohan Allies are too expensive for my deck is to adjust my color balance or resource curve. Bringing along two Spirit Heroes can make it easier to afford those 2 cost self-sacrificing Spirit Allies like Riddermark’s Finest or Escort from Édoras. I generally cut anything of cost 4 from any spheres for which I only have 1 Hero, and I use 3 cost cards very sparingly. There are plenty of good 1 and 2 cost Allies in Rohan, so I generally use more of them and less of the others. There’s always the color-fixing Songs, too, and if Hero Elfhelm happens to be at the table there’s even an added incentive to play them.
Keeping a hand full of cards
Solving the second problem—lack of easy access to card draw—takes a little more work. An interesting wrinkle in the Lord of the Rings Card Game is that card draw is almost exclusively the purvew of a single sphere—Lore. The other three spheres have a few token card draw cards, but they often carry with them very specific requirements on when they can be played, and not every deck can meet those requirements. Without a strong presence in Lore, Rohan decks can sometimes struggle to find ways to keep their hands full.
Rohan is not entirely devoid of card draw options, however. If I’m willing to accept a thematic concession, Spirit Éowyn (or even Hero Háma) + Elven-light make a fun combo. But I don’t usually find it necessary to step too far outside of theme to make Rohan decks work. If I have access to the Leadership sphere, Valiant Sacrifice is a perfect fit, allowing me to draw 2 cards when I discard one of my Allies to fuel some other effect. The recently released Prepare for Battle sidequest, which grants the first player one extra card per round once completed, may also be a good answer to Rohan‘s card draw problem.
Because of the Wandering Gandalf Rule, I don’t feel too bad about including Gandalf in my Rohan deck either. Hero Gandalf or Over Hill and Under Hill Gandalf would give me access to Gandalf’s Staff for some repeatable card draw (or resource acceleration to help deal with the aforementioned expensive Ally problem). There’s always good old Sneak Attack + Core Gandalf, too—and incidentally there are a handful of Rohan Allies like Éomund who can benefit from Sneak Attack as well, so the Event isn’t even a dud if Gandalf chooses to appear too late.
There’s also the option of using Gríma as one of my Heroes to get at some of the traditional Lore card draw cards like Deep Knowledge or Peace, and Thought. One of the best card draw cards in the game since the Core Set, Gléowine, is even a Rohan Ally. He’s not locked behind a door marked “Gríma decks only” though—there are other ways to splash him into a deck. Back in the day, I used to use the resource smoothing card A Good Harvest to help him hit the table even without access to a Lore Hero. Now we have the player side quest The Storm Comes, which allows each player to ignore the resource match on the first Ally they play each round, which I suspect will work even better. It’s even possible to cheat Gléowine into play using cards that put Allies into play without paying for them traditionally like Send for Aid, A Very Good Tale, Timely Aid, or Stand and Fight.
There are other options too
Those are all ways to slip some traditional card draw into a Rohan deck, but there are actually even more nuanced ways to solve the problem. Card draw serves these purposes: (1) it helps you find your key cards, (2) it keeps your hand flush with options to help you adapt to a changing board state, and (3) it ensures that you always have things to spend your resources on (since a pile of unused resources sitting on a Hero usually represents wasted potential of some sort). Cards that read “draw N cards” are definitely the most straightforward way to solve these problems, but it’s also possible to target each of these subgoals individually in other ways.
Finding key cards
If I find that the reason I want more card draw is to find some key cards, Rohan actually has quite a few options for digging through the deck to find exactly what I want. The classic example here is Westfold Horse-breeder, who can search the top 10 cards of my deck for a Mount Attachment. A lot of my Rohan decks rely on Snowmane or Armored Destrier for readying, and the Horse-breeder helps to ensure some level of consistency in getting them out—even in the absence of traditional card draw cards.
If my key card is an Ally like Gamling or Háma, I have found Mustering the Rohirrim to be useful. It’s a card that is often panned as being too expensive—1 resource to search the top 10 cards of your deck for a Rohan Ally to add to your hand—but it does bring a surprising level of consistency to a deck that lives or dies by its Allies.
The other card type I often find myself wanting to dig for in some of my Rohan decks are Weapons like Spear of the Mark or Herugrim, or Armor like Golden Shield. Unfortunately, there aren’t many options for finding these sorts of cards today without either using traditional card draw or leaning on the power of thematic concessions. That being said, FFG has spoiled a card from an upcoming Adventure Pack that will address this problem in the future, so it won’t be an issue forever.
Keeping my options open
If I’m finding that I never seem to have the right cards in hand, or I find myself top-decking all the time, then maybe I need other ways to keep cards around. Rohan‘s primary answer to this is Ally Gamling, who can exhaust to save an Ally that gets discarded, returning it to my hand. With Gamling’s help, I can reliably repeat any discard ability on any Ally I have in play without losing access to it for next turn (provided I can afford to put the Ally back down next turn, of course).
Because Rohan frequently relies so heavily on its Allies, cards that allow me to select my choice from a wide variety of Allies can also provide me with a level of adaptability akin to having a hand full of different cards. Mustering the Rohirrim lets me pick any Ally from the top 10 cards of my deck, while Stand and Fight lets me play any Ally I want from my discard pile. The key is that I can hold these Events until I find that I lack the sort of Ally that I need for any given turn. Low on willpower? I can fetch something like West Road Traveller. Getting swarmed with combat? Perhaps Háma can bail me out. Neither Event is proper card draw, but both of them can serve the similar role of ensuring I have what I need when I need it.
Resources burning a hole in my pocket
In my experience, it’s not terribly common for Rohan decks to end up flush with cash with nothing to spend it on. Between the cost of constantly re-paying for Allies and all of the other cards it needs to keep going, a resource shortage is usually much more common than a surplus. That said, with several resource-generating (or cost-saving) Heroes in the lineup, I could see some decks aching for more cards to spend those hard-earned resources on.
If I found myself in that scenario, I would probably consider looking for some higher-cost cards to include. Maybe I could drop in a few more 3 or 4 cost Allies like Elfhelm or Déorwine. I would pay close attention to specifically which Hero is building up the most resources, and consider upgrading a few of the cards in the deck of that sphere to slightly more expensive ones. With just a few minor tweaks to the cost curve—even just replacing some 1 cost cards with 2 cost cards—I’m sure those extra resources would evaporate pretty quickly. The danger, of course, is in over-doing it, so as with everything in life moderation is key.
Enough horsing around
In general, while I’m testing a deck I try to pay attention to what I wish I had that I don’t. Then I sort through all of the cards I can find within the archetype that can help me to achieve it. I have found the “Category” filters under the “Advanced Options” section of the Hall of Beorn Card Search to be a useful tool for quickly finding all the cards in the card pool that might help me to meet my deck’s needs. More often than not, there exists some way for me to get what I want without having to step too far outside of my chosen archetype.
In a way, each archetype’s inherent weaknesses are what make them fun. They shape the pieces of the puzzle that make deckbuilding such an interesting creative endeavor. And I often find that the process of building a deck is at least as fun—sometimes even more fun—than playing it.
Next week I’ll be back to my Thematic Nightmare series with Nightmare The Seventh Level. I’ll be putting these concepts into practice by building a Dáin-free Dwarf deck. Come back then to see how I intend to do it!