A crack like lightning sounds before you, and a creature of shadow and flame blocks your way. It is an ancient demon of Morgoth, and its presence explains the massing in Moria.
This is it! The Dwarrowdelf cycle ends with a bang as our Heroes come face to face with none other than Durin’s Bane itself in Shadow and Flame. This quest is a massive boss fight, starting with the Balrog in play and only ending when he is defeated. At time of release it was the first quest of its kind, focusing an entire quest around combat against a single massive Enemy.
So which Heroes will have the honor of bringing down the beast? For reasons I have discussed before, I find it unlikely that anyone fought the Balrog face to face—and lived to tell about it—before the Fellowship encounters it during the events of the Fellowship of the Ring. And after that point, Gandalf kills it. So I think I’m only left with one option here:
I have to build a badass Gandalf deck.
Most of the text on the quest cards is pretty generic, describing either the city of Khazad-Dûm or the actions of the Balrog, so it’s not that much of a stretch to think of this quest as describing the Fellowship’s encounter with the Balrog. The only deviation from the official narrative is the text of the final quest card, which states that “a crumbling pile of boulders… gives you a sudden idea… perhaps a well-timed rockslide could send the Balrog down to the depths below…”
There was no well-timed rockslide anywhere in the text of The Fellowship of the Ring, but the Balrog is indeed defeated by causing it to fall down a deep dark pit. So for the purposes of my playthrough, I’ll assume that the Hero with the idea in the sentence above is Gandalf. Perhaps he did plan to use a pile of crumbling boulders to knock the Balrog down one of the many dark crevasses of Moria as he was running through the dwarven ruins, thinking up a plan on his feet—but his solution only presented itself after the party had reached the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, giving him the pitfall trap he had been searching for.
Alright, that works for me from a lore perspective. Now all that’s left to do is kill an ancient demon of Morgoth.
Battling a Balrog
During Setup, the players are instructed to add Durin’s Bane to the staging area. Durin’s Bane has a formidable 4 / 6 / 3 / 27 statline, and cannot leave the staging area. Instead, he is considered to be engaged with all players whose threat is at least 1. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s Indestructable (meaning he doesn’t even die, no matter how much damage you manage to stack on him) has Regenerate 3 (meaning he heals 3 damage at the start of the Refresh phase every round) and is immune to player Attachments. Notably, he is not immune to all player card effects.
This quest also features an interesting mechanic that we haven’t seen before or since: it sets all players’ threat to 0 at the start of the game, regardless of their Heroes’ starting threat. This is huge, and it opens the door to all kinds of shenanigans. Because the magic number for engaging Durin’s Bane is 1 threat, the players essentially get one round to set up before the Balrog comes out swinging—unless, of course, you find some way to keep your threat at 0, which just so happens to be a popular solution for beating this quest.
The first quest stage requires 9 progress. The second stage requires 16, but for some reason puts 4 progress on itself each round as long as you committed a Hero to the quest. Upon reaching the third quest stage, a Location called Dark Pit is added to the staging area. It has 11 quest points, and a Refresh Action when it is the Active Location that is the key to winning the quest: “Exhaust X characters (maximum 3) you control to discard the top X cards of your deck. If all discarded cards have a higher combined printed cost than the remaining hit points of Durin’s Bane, discard Durin’s Bane from play.”
You have to be a little careful with the Dark Pit. Discarding Durin’s Bane via the effect on the Dark Pit is the only way to win the game, so if you accidentally quest through it before you’re able to successfully trigger its Action during the Refresh Phase, you’ll have to wait until it gets shuffled back into the encounter deck and pops back out normally—and nobody wants to sit around waiting for that (especially not with a Balrog in the room).
There are a few Orc Enemies and Locations, but the most notable cards in the deck are Treacheries that make the Balrog scarier in some way. For instance, Fiery Sword becomes a Weapon (not Condition!) Attachment on the Durin’s Bane that gives him a flat +3 to attack. Counter-Spell, on the other hand, attaches to Durin’s Bane and has a chance of cancelling the next Event you play, as well as discarding your entire hand. Other cards like Leaping Flame simply grant the Balrog extra attacks.
The Nightmare version of the quest adds an extra wrinkle to the Balrog’s attacks. Instead of getting Shadow Cards from the encounter deck like a normal Enemy, Durin’s Bane is dealt Shadow Cards from its own special deck full of terrible effects instead. The Shadow Effects on these cards range from discarding all Attachments from the defending character, to healing Durin’s Bane for every point of damage dealt, to giving Durin’s Bane extra attacks whenever he kills a character. Plus, they feature a lot of great Balrog art.
You can see all of the encounter cards and their quantities over at the Hall of Beorn.
Building the deck
One of my Hero choices is essentially made for me: If this is going to be Gandalf’s showdown with the mighty Balrog, then I want to bring him along as a Hero. But who will accompany him?
I considered building a White Council deck, bringing Galadriel and Elrond along (thinking that perhaps their wisdom helped Gandalf defeat the Balrog) but it just didn’t feel quite right. It wasn’t a throng of Middle Earth’s most powerful denizens that banded together to face down the Balrog, after all—it was a small ragtag band who barely made it out alive.
So instead I’m going to use “The Fellowship of the Ring” as my guiding theme for this deck. All nine of them, after all, came face to face with the beast, and although it was Gandalf who was responsible for landing the killing blow, I’m sure his immediate thoughts were of Frodo and his companions as he fiercely faced down his opponent.
No Fellowship deck would be complete without Frodo, so he’s my pick for Hero #2. Plus, his ability to convert damage into threat should come in especially handy against this particular quest. But who will be my pick for Hero #3? I’m going to want to fit in as much of the Fellowship as possible, so ideally it should be someone for whom we don’t yet have an Ally card. Three Heroes fit this bill: Aragorn, Merry, and Pippin. Unfortunately, that means that two of them are going to get left out of the deck altogether.
I experimented a bit with each option, trying different sphere balances for the deck; but ultimately the decision came down to two things: 1) Sword that Was Broken is a great way to solve the low-willpower problem one faces when one has a deck with only Unique Allies. 2) Timely Aid—a Secrecy card which searches the top 5 cards of your deck for an Ally to put into play for free—is the fastest way to get expensive 4-cost Allies like Legolas, Boromir, or Gimli into play in the early game. Aragorn is the only option with presence in the Leadership sphere to help me play these two cards, so Aragorn it is.
Timely Aid highlights a key mechanic I plan to use in this deck: because the quest sets my threat to 0, regardless of my Hero selection, I can freely include any Secrecy cards I might find useful. Plus, there’s something delightfully cheeky about building a Secrecy Hero Gandalf deck. Here’s what it looks like:
Deck: The Secret Fire
Theme: The Fellowship of the Ring
“‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.'”
—Gandalf, The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, The Fellowship of the Ring
Aragorn (Core Set)
Frodo Baggins (Conflict at the Carrock)
Gandalf (The Road Darkens)
3x Arwen Undómiel (The Watcher in the Water)
3x Bilbo Baggins (The Road Darkens)
2x Bill the Pony (The Black Riders)
2x Boromir (The Road Darkens)
3x Gimli (The Treason of Saruman)
2x Legolas (The Treason of Saruman)
3x Sam Gamgee (The Thing in the Depths)
3x Dúnedain Warning (Conflict at the Carrock)
3x Gandalf’s Staff (The Road Darkens)
3x Resourceful (The Watcher in the Water)
3x Sword that was Broken (The Watcher in the Water)
2x Unexpected Courage (Core Set)
1x Wizard Pipe (The Road Darkens)
2x A Good Harvest (The Steward’s Fear)
3x A Test of Will (Core Set)
3x Daeron’s Runes (Foundations of Stone)
3x Feint (Core Set)
3x The Wizards’s Voice (The Voice of Isengard)
3x Timely Aid (The Redhorn Gate)
3 Heroes, 50 Cards
This is a Secrecy deck built specifically to beat Shadow and Flame.
The entire deck is based on the fact that the quest reduces my threat to 0 at the start of the game. This grants me two advantages:
- I can use the Secrecy cards Timely Aid and Resourceful to help me get expensive Allies out quickly
- I can use Frodo’s ability to turn the Balrog’s hefty damage output into threat raises, giving me the ability to tank attacks round after round with little danger
I generally mulligan for Timely Aid, because that allows me to get a powerful Ally like Boromir, Gimli, or Legolas down on turn 1. In the early game, these Allies are critical for helping me to deal with the small-to-moderate sized Enemies which sometimes come off the top of the encounter deck to harass me. In the late game, I’m going to need as much attack power as I can get so that I can deal enough damage to the Balrog that it can’t just heal it off right away.
When I can’t cancel the Balrog’s attacks with cards like The Wizard’s Voice or Feint, Frodo is always the defender. If the Balrog gets an extra attack during the questing phase, I generally take the attack undefended and use Frodo to convert the whole thing into a massive threat gain. Defense boosts like Dúnedain Warning and Arwen Undómiel‘s ability go on Frodo to reduce the amount of threat gained each round. Even though it starts at 0, threatting out is still the biggest danger this deck faces; boosting Frodo’s defense helps me buy a little more time.
The other key card in this deck is Gandalf’s Staff. While Frodo’s ability to cancel the Balrog’s damage does render many of the shadow effects in it’s special Nightmare Shadow Effect Deck moot, a few of them (like the one that deals it 3 Shadow Cards from the regular deck) can still cause serious problems. Gandalf’s Staff allows me to discard the Balrog’s shadow card consistently every turn*, before it has the chance to do any damage. This allows me to weather many attacks over the course of the game without a worrying about a stray shadow effect resetting me back to square one.
I wanted to be sure to include as many Allies from the Fellowship as I could, but when all was said and done I found the deck still didn’t have enough willpower to make progress during the first stage of the quest. I decided to broaden my scopes a little beyond the nine walkers themselves, allowing Bilbo Baggins and Arwen Undómiel to come along to the party too.
Neither of these characters were members of the Fellowship, but they were very close to some of the characters who were, so they still felt thematically linked. Perhaps one day I will be able to replace them with Merry and Pippin Allies, but for the time being I just have to make do with what I have.
The play’s the thing
Win ratio: 5 / 5 (100%)
I’m pretty surprised that I was able to pull out a perfect 5 / 5 record on this quest, because it was a tough one. Many games ended with a desperate push to put enough damage on Durin’s Bane before threatting out, with one game ending at a desperate 49 threat.
Twice Ally Sam Gamgee‘s ability—which allows me to pay a Spirit resource to ready him after raising my threat—made the difference between victory and defeat. Once I had to use poor old Sam as a chump blocker for a Cave Troll which showed up near the end of the game, threatening to kill off my much-needed attackers before they could kill the Balrog. But Sam was ready and willing to take one for the team, jumping in front of the brute so that the others could escape to safety.
In a different game, my threat was climbing too fast and I wasn’t going to be able to survive another round of attacks. It was now or never! I was a little short on damage on the Balrog, so I decided to trigger Sam’s ability just for that extra 2 points of attack. I calculated the damage, exhausted my 3 characters, and discarded the top 3 cards of my deck, holding my breath. It was precisely enough! If not for the indomitable spirit of Sam Gamgee, the Fellowship would have been overrun and lost in the deeps of Khazad-Dûm.
* Mistakes? I don’t make mistakes!
Over on my decklist on RingsDB, Warden of Arnor pointed out that Gandalf’s Staff can only be used to discard Shadow Cards from non-unique Enemies—so unfortunately Durin’s Bane doesn’t qualify. That’s too bad, since I’m pretty sure that means that I used Gandalf’s Staff incorrectly in every one of my 5 games.
So as an experiment, I swapped it out for 3 copies of Hasty Stroke instead. Being an Event, it’s nowhere near as consistent as the Staff was, but it’s better than nothing. I played 2 more games with the substitution and won both of them solidly. Many of the Balrog’s special Shadow Effects are effectively neutralized via Frodo’s ability anyway, so it seems the Staff wasn’t required after all.
Would I have won all 5 games without the Staff? It’s hard to say, but I feel pretty comfortable saying that the deck works fine without it.
Thanks for catching the error, Warden of Arnor!
A difficult but fun puzzle, Shadow and Flame is a suitably epic capstone on an all-around great cycle. I couldn’t help but notice that the art in this particular quest was exceptional. I love big monsters, and there are a lot of great glory shots of the Balrog in this one—especially on some of the Nightmare cards. If you own the cards, take a moment some time to leaf through them and enjoy the visuals.
Are there any other lovers of monster art out there? Do you have a favorite quest from an art perspective? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!
And so ends the Khazad-Dûm and Dwarrowdelf cycle! Next week I’ll do a wrap-up article like I did for the Mirkwood cycle, and then after that I’ll be launching a new series on my blog alongside my Thematic Nightmare series. More details to come, so stay tuned!