Setting the stage
Your party has braved the snows of the pass, but now must travel North along the Misty Mountains for league upon league as you escort Arwen to her father’s house.
Road to Rivendell picks up neatly right where the previous quest left off, in the middle of a mission to escort Arwen across the Misty Mountains back to her father’s home in Rivendell. Like the previous quest, the plot is simple and believable, requiring no great effort to imagine it as a part of Tolkien’s greater narrative (unlike much of the rest of the cycle).
The Nightmare version of this quest replaces stage 2 with a scene wherein Arwen is captured by Orcs on the road, and the Heroes have to go rescue her. As tired as the “save the princess” trope is, when taken in the context of Tolkien’s greater narrative I can’t help but notice the poetic note this scene adds: this was the very same road upon which Arwen’s mother, Celebrían, was captured and tortured by Orcs many years before. That experience left her scarred, causing her to depart into the West the following year. Nightmare Road to Rivendell charges the players with ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Because the plot of this quest cleanly follows from the previous one, I could just try to re-tool my deck from last time. But half the point of this project is to try new and interesting decks, so instead I will assume that a new party of Heroes met Arwen and company in the mountains after they had braved the mountain passes. There are lots of thematic options here, but “Heroes found roaming the Western slopes of the Misty Mountains” sounds like Dúnedain to me.
And so my retelling of this quest shall open with Arwen, Gandalf, and company meeting up with a roving band of Dúnedain on the Road to Rivendell.
The rules of the road
Like the previous quest, the game starts with an Arwen Undómiel Objective Ally in play. Arwen has 2 willpower, 1 defense, 2 hitpoints, and a Response that allows her to grant a free resource to any Hero in play. If Arwen leaves play, the players fail the quest.
Unlike the previous quest, however, it’s much more of a challenge to keep Arwen alive. There are Treachery effects like Undisturbed Bones, which specifically deals damage to Allies in play (and that’s Arwen if she happens to be the only Ally in play). There are Shadow Effects like the one on Pathless Country, which simply deals 1 damage to each Ally in play. And then there’s the Uruk Elf-stalker, which deals 1 damage directly to Arwen whenever it destroys a character.
The primary mechanic of this quest is the Ambush keyword. Enemies with the Ambush keyword make engagement checks immediately upon entering play, rather than waiting for the Encounter phase. In the Nightmare version of the quest, these Enemies continue to contribute their threat to the staging area until the end of the Quest phase. This has more of an effect in multiplayer than solo because it means the Enemies decide who they engage rather than the players, essentially skipping optional engagements. In solo, though, there’s only one player to engage so it doesn’t make much of a difference. To go with the engagement theme, many of these Enemies also have nasty abilities that trigger when they engage a player.
The Ambush keyword isn’t what most people remember about this quest, though. Instead, they remember the awful cancel-or-die Treacheries and Shadow Effects. The Shadow Effect on Undisturbed Bones (“If the defending character is an Ally, discard it from play”) is pretty bad because it can result in an undefended attack, but at least it can be worked around by using a Hero as the primary defender.
The Shadow Effect on Sleeping Sentry, on the other hand, is much less forgiving: “The defending player must discard all exhausted characters he controls”. I hope you readied all of your questing Heroes, don’t need the defending character, and can handle an undefended attack! Depending on how late in the game it is, the When Revealed effect on Orc Ambush! can be equally game-ending: “All Orc Enemies in the staging area engage the first player. If there are no Orc Enemies in the staging area, return all Orc Enemies in the encounter discard pile to the staging area, if able”. In the early game, this card might whiff, but in the late game, this can dump as many as 17 Orc Enemies on you all in one turn. Oh, and just for fun, the designers decided to give it Surge, too.
These two cards can turn a game from well-in-hand to completely unwinnable with a single card flip, depending on the circumstances. As a result, Shadow Effect cancellation and Treachery cancellation are both must-haves in order to beat this quest with any level of consistency.
You can see all of the encounter cards and their quantities over at the Hall of Beorn.
Planning the deck
There are a lot of constraints that I have to work through given that I want to build a Dúnedain deck and that I need a focus on cancellation. There are only so many Dúnedain Heroes today, and almost half of them are named “Aragorn”. I want to be able to include A Test of Will to cancel those game-ending Treachery cards. That means I need access to the Spirit sphere, and that only leaves me with two options: I could put Celebrían’s Stone on any color of Aragorn, or I could use Idraen.
If I were to go the Celebrían’s Stone route, I’d be relying on finding it and building up 2 Leadership resources to pay for it. That’s on top of having to find A Test of Will and saving an extra resource on Aragorn to actually pay for it. That certainly could work, but since one bad Treachery card can mean instant death in this quest, I think I’ll go for the Spirit resource icon that Idraen affords me from turn 1 instead.
With that decision made, the next problem I have to deal with is Shadow Effects. In a way, the Dúnedain core mechanic of engaging a lot of Enemies and keeping them around is a really poor fit for Road to Rivendell; more Enemies means more Shadow Effects round after round, and I’ve already established that some of the Shadow Effects in this quest are game-enders. I seem to be inviting trouble!
Fortunately, I have a lot of options for dealing with shadow cards. A Burning Brand, an oldie-but-goodie which cancels all Shadow Effects dealt to Enemies defended by the attached Hero, allows me to feel completely safe. I can combine that with a more recent shadow control card, Armored Destrier, to add some readying and additional shadow control to the mix. The only problem is that each of these cards has a different restriction: A Burning Brand can only be attached to Lore characters, while Armored Destrier can only be attached to Leadership or Sentinel Heroes. There’s only one Hero in today’s card pool who qualifies for both Attachments without additional setup: Lore Aragorn. So my second Hero selection is pretty much made for me.
In order to play the Destrier, I’m going to need a Leadership Hero. That leaves me with either Amarthiúl or Halbarad. Either one could work fine, but I like Amarthiúl’s ability to generate resources, so I’ll go with him this time.
From here, I can fill the rest of the deck in with some more shadow control (for the early game while I’m still drawing into my Destriers and Brands) and the standard Dúnedain Allies. Here’s what I came up with:
Deck: A Light from the Shadows
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”
—Strider, The Fellowship of the Ring
Amarthiúl (The Battle of Carn Dûm)
Aragorn (The Watcher in the Water)
Idraen (The Three Trials)
2x Andrath Guardsman (The Mûmakil)
2x Dúnedain Watcher (The Dead Marshes)
2x Fornost Bowman (The Dread Realm)
1x Gandalf (Core Set)
1x Halbarad (The Flame of the West)
3x Ranger of Cardolan (The Wastes of Eriador)
3x Sarn Ford Sentry (The Lost Realm)
1x Súlien (The City of Corsairs)
3x Warden of Annúminas (The Lost Realm)
2x Weather Hills Watchman (The Lost Realm)
3x A Burning Brand (Conflict at the Carrock)
3x Armored Destrier (Temple of the Deceived)
2x Dark Knowledge (Core Set)
2x Dúnedain Remedy (The Drowned Ruins)
3x Dúnedain Warning (Conflict at the Carrock)
2x Heir of Valandil (The Lost Realm)
3x A Test of Will (Core Set)
3x Daeron’s Runes (Foundations of Stone)
3x Deep Knowledge (The Voice of Isengard)
3x Descendants of Kings (Escape from Mount Gram)
3x Feint (Core Set)
3x Hasty Stroke (Core Set)
3 Heroes, 53 Cards
This is a Dúnedain deck with a focus on ensuring that it never has to deal with Shadow Effects.
The core strategy behind Dúnedain decks is always a little backwards. The goal is to collect 2-4 of the weakest Enemies, never killing them, but instead using them to fuel cards like Heir of Valandil to get normally expensive Dúnedain Allies into play for cheap or free. The problem, of course, is that this exposes me to those Enemies’ attacks round after round, and that means lots of potentially nasty Shadow Effects.
The core engine of this deck centers around neutralizing Shadow Effects. Once the deck is set up (which typically takes 2 or 3 rounds) I am perfectly capable of tanking 3-5 Enemies each turn absolutely risk free. The primary defender of the deck is Aragorn, with A Burning Brand in hand while riding atop an Armored Destrier (preferably two, actually). A few Dúnedain Warnings can help to boost his defense, and by the endgame he should have plenty of resources to help pass Dúnedain Remedy around to mop up any extra damage he might have taken.
Amarthiúl can serve as an emergency defender in the early game while Aragorn is still getting set up, but usually he’s on attack duty to help kill anything with too dangerous to tank safely. Idraen goes a-questing in the early game, or on any turn that I’m likely to clear a Location (because then she’ll ready through her ability) but most of the heavy lifting when it comes to questing actually comes from the Allies. There are plenty of 2-willpower Allies in the deck, and hopefully by the latter part of the game I’m getting a discount for them through Heir of Valandil. This is the first deck in which I’ve managed to get Warden of Annúminas to work really well, too, often questing for enormous numbers to help close out the end of the game.
I always mulligan for a hand with A Burning Brand or Armored Destrier in it. There’s plenty of card draw here, though, so even if I don’t get one of them in my starting hand it’s usually not too hard to find what I’m looking for.
I can’t stop tweaking
After playing this quest, I decided to pull out my 1 speculative copy of Gandalf. He turned out to be a “win more” card, and while I did use him during a few of my games to draw cards, I don’t think he contributed much to the action.
In exchange, I bumped up Heir of Valandil to 3 copies. In my 5 games against this quest, I actually only drew Heir of Valandil once, towards the end of the game. I often found myself wishing I had it, though, so one extra copy should help me to find it faster.
Finally, I decided to remove Hasty Stroke to trim the deck down to 50 cards. I rarely used it, and this quest has worse Shadow Effects than most. If wasn’t necessary for Road to Rivendell, it’s probably always going to be superfluous.
You can view the finalized version of this deck on RingsDB.
The play’s the thing
Win ratio: 4 / 5 (80%)
Typically, the most dangerous part of each game was the first few rounds. Sometimes I would end up resolving Shadow Effects that I couldn’t cancel, and I just had to hope that none of them were Sleeping Sentry. By about round 3, though, I always had my engine set up and then the biggest threat was getting more 5-attack Enemies than I could handle at once.
In general, though, these were all smooth games; at some point I just didn’t have to look at the Shadow Cards anymore, making things pretty straightforward. I kept around any Enemies with 2 attack or less to fuel Dúnedain abilities, and killing anything else usually wasn’t a problem since all three of my Heroes had 3 attack.
I usually didn’t send Arwen on the quest, except for maybe on the first round or two. I didn’t want her to be too big of a target for Treacheries and Shadow Effects until I knew I could cancel them, since she only has 2 hit points and I have no way to heal her. I used her to attack Enemies instead (mostly so that I could trigger her Response for extra resources). Arwen typically took 1 damage at some point during the game, but I was always able to keep her from taking a second point of damage.
The one game I lost left me feeling pretty bitter. I had my whole engine set up: there were a few Enemies pounding futilely on Aragorn’s impervious defenses and plenty of powerful Allies in play. I was making a lot of progress each round, and at that point it was just a matter of closing out the quest. But then I flipped over a copy of Orc Ambush, with no Enemies left in the staging area. There were 8 Orc Enemies in the discard pile, and there was no way I could safely take that many extra attacks in one round. Fortunately, I had a copy of A Test of Will in hand, so I just cancelled it. Orc Ambush has the Surge keyword, though, so I still had to turn over another card—which turned out to be a second copy of Orc Ambush. My cancellation cards spent, I ended up crumbling under the weight of a horde of Enemies, feeling like there was nothing I could have done to achieve victory. It was all luck of the draw.
And that, I think, is the core problem with this particular quest. The best way to win is to neutralize the encounter deck, making it feel a little bland. But even when you play well, a single card flip at the wrong time can turn any board state—no matter how strong your position is—into instant defeat, which can be pretty frustrating.
I really enjoy the Dúnedain archetype, and this deck definitely did not disappoint in that regard. It’s always fun to turn those extra Enemies from a disadvantage into an advantage, and I’m glad I managed to get it to hum even against a quest with such brutal Shadow Effects.
I can’t say I have as much love for Road to Rivendell, however. It was a fairly standard quest as long as I had my cancellation cards at the ready. If I didn’t have cancellation in hand, I knew there was always the possibility that I could turn over a card that meant instant loss, which—while suspenseful—isn’t exactly fun.
Are there any Road to Rivendell fans out there? I’d love to hear your perspective (or war stories) in the comments section below!
Since I missed last week my schedule is all confused now. My next article will probably be on my entry for the Middle Earth Hero Auction, but I’m not sure when it will actually land. After that, it’s on to Nightmare Watcher in the Water. Stay tuned!