Setting the stage
Elrond has asked you to scout the Mines of Moria on your return to Lorien, hoping to discover if it is the source of increased Orc activity along the Misty Mountains.
I have finally reached The Watcher in the Water, the third Adventure Pack of the Dwarrowdelf cycle. In some ways, this is the most troublesome quest of the cycle when it comes to placing it within the timeline of Tolkein’s other works. The narrative of the quest goes like this: Elrond sends some Heroes to search Moria for Orc activity, but the Heroes run into the Watcher of the Water and must battle it until they can figure out how to bypass the “ancient spell” that blocks the Doors of Durin. The Nightmare version of the quest compounds the issue, because it also requires the players to kill The Watcher to win.
When the Fellowship encounters The Watcher in the Water in the chapter “A Journey in the Dark”, the creature chases them into the mines and then piles up boulders and trees on the other side of the Doors of Durin, trapping them inside. This presents a problem for me: if our Heroes kill The Watcher, then it must take place after the Fellowship has passed through. But by then, the Doors of Durin would have been blocked off. Right off the bat, this seems to be an impossible thematic situation.
Something has to give—either reducing The Watcher’s hit points to 0 doesn’t represent killing it, or clearing the Doors of Durin doesn’t represent going through them. Of those two possibilities, the first seems easier for me to accept, but then it brings me back around to answering the same sorts of “Why didn’t Elrond say something about The Watcher to the Fellowship?” questions I had to wrestle with surrounding The Balrog for other parts of this cycle.
Instead, I’ll take the other route: the Heroes do kill The Watcher, but clearing the Doors of Durin merely represents the Heroes locating the door and discovering that it is impassible. This means my version of the quest must take place after the Fellowship has passed through.
This is the story I’ll go with: This mission is given by Elrond to The Grey Company as they make their way from Rivendell to Lórien in search of news of Aragorn and the rest of the Fellowship.
…or, at least that was the narrative I was originally planning to go with. The mechanical realities of the quest wanted to tell a different story.
The mechanical realities
This quest has two stages. The first is fairly standard, merely requiring 13 progress to complete. The second adds two set-aside cards to the game: Doors of Durin and The Watcher. Players must clear Doors of Durin before engaging The Watcher, and both must be defeated in order to win the quest. The trick is that Doors of Durin can’t be cleared through normal means. Instead, the players must discard cards from their hand and hope that the first letter of one of those cards matches the first letter of the top card of the encounter deck.
In practice, there are two sure-fire ways to clear the Doors of Durin: (1) use lots of card draw to ensure you can dump lots of cards turn after turn until you get it right, or (2) look at the top card of the encounter deck so that you don’t have to guess, only discarding a single card once you’re certain it’s the right one. Either way, it helps to know the first-letter distribution of the encounter deck, so I did what I usually do and made a table:
The remainder of the quest cards focus around Tentacle Enemies, which have low defense, but all have abilities that read “After [some condition is met], discard the top card of the encounter deck. If that card has a Shadow Effect or is a Tentacle Enemy, [something bad happens]”. About 60% of the cards in the encounter deck are either Tentacle Enemies or have shadow effects, so unless you have some foreknowledge about what card is on top of the encounter deck, it’s best to assume that the bad thing is going to happen.
Many of these Enemies have a chance to attach to a character (often the character who defends or attacks the Enemy) as a Tentacle attachment that harms the attached character in some way. There are other cards in the deck which do bad things to characters that have a Tentacle attached to them.
In all, the quest demands significantly more from the players in the combat phase than in the questing phase, with most Locations being fairly mild in nature and few cards exceeding 3 threat.
You can see all of the encounter cards and their quantities over at The Hall of Beorn.
Building the deck
Alright, so my original plan was to use a Grey Company deck to defeat this quest. I tossed together a quick Dúnedain-style deck featuring Elladan, Elrohir, and Halbarad as the Heroes. At first, I thought they would be a perfect fit: after all, the quest is much more combat-focused than quest-focused, so the Dúnedain’s engage-all-the-things archetype should theoretically do well here.
In practice, though, this deck was lacking a key element to enable it to consistently clear the guessing game on the Doors of Durin: the Lore sphere. The Lore sphere would give me access both to more card draw and to encounter deck scrying so I’d be able to achieve victory against the Doors consistently rather than having to guess all the time. So I swapped Hero Halbarad for Ally Halbarad and promoted Erestor to a Hero instead.
Erestor was perfect, because his ability forces me to discard my hand at the end of the round anyway, so discarding for the Doors of Durin was practically free. All of my Heroes now being Noldor, I decided to swap the deck contents out for a Noldor discard strategy instead of using primarily Dúnedain. That was just as well since, in practice, I rarely found myself engaged with lots of Enemies at once anyway—I think this was a function of there being many encounter cards that caused Enemies to leave play (to turn them into Attachments).
The deck still wasn’t working, though. The Doors of Durin were no longer the biggest problem; instead it was the fact that I was relying too heavily on my Heroes for combat, and inevitably one of them would get all wrapped up in Tentacle Attachments and basically become useless. Plus, I was finding it hard to pay for many of the more useful Noldor Allies, my questing wasn’t as strong as I wanted it to be, and if I didn’t clear the Doors of Durin quickly enough threat was started to become an issue. This deck was still a hot mess.
There was actually a simple way to solve all of these issues at once: Hero Arwen provides easy access to willpower, threat reduction, and resource generation. But with Elladan and Elrohir having co-dependent abilities I only had one open Hero slot I could play with, and I had already filled it with Erestor. There wasn’t room for all four Heroes at once! I puzzled over this for a while, but eventually I decided to do the unthinkable.
I split up the brothers.
And it worked.
Deck: The Path of Wisdom
“It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy!”
— Gandalf, The Council of Elrond, The Fellowship of the Ring
Arwen Undómiel (The Dread Realm)
Elladan (Road to Rivendell)
Erestor (The Treachery of Rhudaur)
1x Galdor of the Havens (The Treachery of Rhudaur)
1x Gildor Inglorion (The Hills of Emyn Muil)
1x Glorfindel (Flight of the Stormcaller)
3x Guardian of Rivendell (Flight of the Stormcaller)
2x Henamarth Riversong (Core Set)
3x Imladris Caregiver (Flight of the Stormcaller)
1x Lindir (The Battle of Carn Dûm)
3x Rivendell Minstrel (The Hunt for Gollum)
3x Sailor of Lune (The Grey Havens)
3x Veteran Sword-elf (A Storm on Cobas Haven)
2x Watcher of the Bruinen (The Watcher in the Water)
3x Elven Mail (The Three Trials)
2x Elven Spear (The Treachery of Rhudaur)
3x Entangling Nets (Temple of the Deceived)
2x Forest Snare (Core Set)
1x Light of Valinor (Foundations of Stone)
2x Protector of Lórien (Core Set)
3x Raiment of War (The Thing in the Depths)
2x Silver Harp (The Treachery of Rhudaur)
2x To the Sea, to the Sea! (The Grey Havens)
3x Elrond’s Counsel (The Watcher in the Water)
2x Elven-light (The Dread Realm)
1x Lords of the Eldar (The Battle of Carn Dûm)
3x Will of the West (Core Set)
Player Side Quest (1)
1x Scout Ahead (The Wastes of Eriador)
3 Heroes, 53 Cards
This is a discard-focused Erestor deck that relies on strong Noldor Allies for combat.
The key Attachment is To the Sea, to the Sea!, which along with Arwen’s resource-generating ability helps to smooth out the cost curve of the deck and make it easier to afford expensive Allies like Gildor Inglorion and Glorfindel. Because of this, To the Sea, To the Sea! is the card I usually mulligan for (although with 10 cards in my opening hand, the odds of seeing it early on are good regardless).
The combat phase is handled primarily by Allies like Guardian of Rivendell. As such, Attachments like Raiment of War and Elven Mail are intended primarily for Allies rather than Heroes in this deck. It doesn’t take long before I have an Ally with 3 – 4 defense and 5 hit points, and plenty capable of handling the combat phase as effectively as any Hero. By the end of the game I usually have two or three of them.
The Heroes are primarily used for questing. Because of that, I don’t end up missing the bonuses that Elladan would receive if Elrohir were present—he’s really just here to quest for 2 each round and provide me with the Tactics resource icon, and he doesn’t need Elrohir around for any of that.
Well, I didn’t exactly hit the “Grey Company” theme I was initially aiming for when I first started this deck, but I did manage to hew pretty closely to a more general Noldor theme. The only odd card out here is Henamarth Riversong, a Silvan Ally that I included because encounter deck scrying is just so dang good against this quest. Her ability was useful in every single game that I played, either to know what cards to discard for the Doors of Durin, or to know when it was or wasn’t safe to attack particular Tentacle Enemies.
It feels like this quest was designed specifically to encourage the use of Henamarth Riversong, so I decided it was okay if she tagged along with her Noldor buddies this time.
The play’s the thing
Win ratio: 4 / 5 (80%)
This was a fairly difficult (one might be tempted to say “annoying”) quest until I stumbled upon this particular deck design. Erestor and Henamarth combined make the Doors of Durin mini-game much more palatable than just trying to guess randomly and hoping it doesn’t take too long (or take too many resources). Once I had my deck figured out the quest became fairly straightforward, with the Tentacle Enemies being interesting but not terribly threatening unless they showed up at just the wrong time.
I noticed that The Watcher isn’t immune to player card effects or Attachments, so I decided to throw a few copies of Forest Snare in my deck. Most games as I neared the second quest stage I would try to stall for a few rounds until I found a Forest Snare. Then I would use a Silver Harp to save it from getting discarded at the end of the round, so that I could save it for The Watcher. In this way, I generally only had to suffer a single attack from The Watcher, after which I would ensnare the nasty beast and kill it at my leisure over the next several rounds.
My one loss was due to a mis-play on my part. I had a very strong opening hand, getting Glorfindel down on turn 1. I quickly built a strong board presence, and I was feeling pretty much untouchable. When I saw my last Will of the West show up with a fairly large portion of my deck left to go, I decided to let it get discarded at the end of the round, figuring I would win before reaching the end of my deck anyway. I had forgotten to take the Doors of Durin into account, however. I never managed to draw a card with the same first letter as a card on top of the encounter deck. I drew through my whole deck, and with no way to recur cards from my discard pile, I was out of luck and forced to fold.
After that game, I was always sure to play my last Will of the West, no matter when it decided to show up!
The elves wiped the grime from their swords, their clothes wet with swamp water. Whatever that thing was, it was dead now. “It seems to have barred the Door,” Arwen said, still breathing heavily from the fight. “Erestor’s instructions will be useless to us against a pile of boulders,” her brother lamented, “and those poor trees it uprooted were so ancient. It is shameful they came to this end.” Arwen gave a dejected sigh. “If Aragorn and Frodo came through this way, we cannot follow them, orcs or no. I will return to our father and tell him what has happened here; you go ahead to Lórien and meet our brother. Perhaps we can still aid Aragorn in his hour of need.”
While I appreciate the way the designers melded the theme of The Watcher in the Water with the mechanics, I can’t say that I’m a huge fan of actually playing the quest itself. The guessing game is a clever way to emulate trying to solve a riddle, but in practice it plays out as more of a deckbuilding challenge than one that provides much interest during the gameplay itself. As such, I think of this quest more as a puzzle to be solved than something fun to play multiple times.
What do you think, readers? Do you ever find yourself going back to replay The Watcher in the Water? Is it fun enough as a deckbuilding challenge to make it a good quest, or is it better left banished to the bottom of a deep lake?
Next week I’ll be taking on The Long Dark. I honestly don’t remember much about the quest one way or the other, so it’ll be fun to enjoy it anew. Until next time!