Lord Alcaron and Faramir have been captured by forces from Minas Morgul. You pursue their captors eastward into the dreaded vale.
The exciting conclusion of the Against the Shadow cycle, The Morgul Vale challenges players to rescue Faramir from the clutches of his kidnappers before he’s whisked away to Sauron’s lair, never to be seen again. This quest contains a few narrative surprises, so if you haven’t had the chance to play through this cycle yet, and you’d like to follow along with the storyline as intended, then you might want to skip this article and come back to it once you’ve had a chance to play it yourself. In other words, this post will contain story spoilers!
Okay, is it just those of us who are prepared to hear the full story? Great! Let’s talk about the perils of The Morgul Vale.
Unlike almost every other quest in the game, The Morgul Vale doesn’t have any quest stages that require progress. Instead, each quest stage is associated with a single big boss Enemy with the Captain trait. Once that stage’s Captain is defeated, you move on to the next quest stage, which brings out the next boss Enemy. You must defeat all three boss Enemies to win the game.
To further complicate things, the quest includes an additional counter in the form of To the Tower, an Objective that represents how close the Dark One’s kidnappers have come to bringing Faramir to Minas Morgul. Many different encounter cards add additional progress tokens to To the Tower, and once it has collected 10 progress the players have lost, Faramir having been brought inexorably to his doom in the heart of Mordor. Unlike many other counters in the game, nothing adds tokens to To the Tower with a regular cadence—these tokens just come unpredictably from Shadow Effects, When Revealed abilities, or other card effects.
Just because you don’t need any progress to complete the quest doesn’t mean that you can completely ignore questing. Encounter cards range from 2 to 5 threat, so if you don’t keep the Staging Area under control you’re likely to end up threating out. Furthermore, many of the quest’s Locations can place progress on To the Tower or buff Captain Enemies in play, so you’ll probably want to clear them so you don’t have to deal with their negative effects.
Of course, since the focus of the quest is on the Captain Enemies, it’s probably worth spending a little tine going over the nuances of each one. While the last boss is immune to player card Attachments, the first two aren’t—and none of them are immune to player card effects altogether. This means you’re free to bring along Traps or other combat control cards to help you manage the danger of the three big baddies.
The first Captain Enemy is Murzag, a mean old Uruk with 2 threat, 5 attack, 2 defense, and 5 hit points. Importantly, his engagement cost is 30—the highest of all the Captains—so if you keep your threat low, this is your opportunity to control how quickly you proceed through the quest. Once you do start taking hits from Murzag, he reveals an extra encounter card every time he attacks, causing it to engage you immediately if it happens to be an Enemy. In my experience, this can spiral out of control pretty quickly if you let him attack too often, so make sure you either kill him quickly or have some way to limit the number of times he gets to attack.
Once you defeat Murzag, the second boss enemy is the traitorous Lord Alcaron—who, as it turns out, has been working for Sauron this whole time to help capture Faramir. Lord Alcaron has 3 threat, 4 attack, 3 defense, 5 hit points, and an engagement cost of 10—so most decks are going to need to deal with him as soon as he shows up. His ability is particularly nasty as well: first of all, he places 1 token on To the Tower every time he attacks. Even worse, he gets an extra attack every time he’s dealt a shadow card with no Shadow Effect. This means it’s not unusual for him to attack two times per round—sometimes even more. Fortunately, about 4 / 5ths of the encounter cards do have Shadow Effects, so he’s not likely to keep swinging forever. Still, it can be hard to know how many defenders to hold back for him.
After the Traitor has been dealt with, the final challenge is to defeat the Nazgûl of Minas Morgul at The Last Bridge, a Location which gets 1 threat for each token on To the Tower. The Nazgûl has 4 threat, a whopping 7 attack, 4 defense, and 5 hit points, 1 engagement cost, and is immune to player card Attachments. Furthermore, whenever it is dealt any amount of damage, it reduces that damage to just 1. That means that unless you’re packing some direct damage effects, it’s going to take a minimum of 5 turns to take down the Nazgûl—and that’s assuming it doesn’t get healed by other card effects like the Warrior of Nurn.
Speaking of which, there are several cards in the encounter deck which buff the Captain Enemies, making them even more formidable than they are alone. Of particular note are the Morgul Bodyguards, who take damage in place of the boss Enemies, effectively giving them a bigger hit point pool.
If you manage to avoid threating out, keep less than 10 tokens on To the Tower, and defeat all 3 boss Enemies, you have rescued Faramir from his captors and the day has been won.
You can see all of the encounter cards over at the Hall of Beorn.
Building the deck
This is one of those quests that took a lot of experimentation before I found a theme that was even capable of beating the quest at all, let alone one that could beat it with any consistency.
My first attempt was to use yet another Gondor deck, going along with the general theme of the cycle. My initial attempts weren’t terribly successful—but even more importantly, I found them to be incredibly boring. I’ve done several Gondor decks this cycle, and I didn’t feel like there was that much more room to explore there—if possible, I wanted to try something different for this quest.
So what other characters have been to the Morgul Vale? Certainly not many. I experimented a little with a Battle of the Black Gate theme, which showed some promise, but still didn’t produce anything that was terribly interesting to play. But then I remembered that Frodo and Sam made their way through the Morgul Vale on their way to Mordor as well—and that got me started on the idea of a Hobbit-themed deck.
I built a few Frodo & Sam Hobbit decks that seemed promising, but ultimately they weren’t able to muster enough attack power to consistently take down the big Enemies. I needed something else—something more focused.
And that’s when I ran across this Rosie Cotton deck by Beorn.
Almost on a whim, I gave it a quick try as-written against this quest. I was surprised at just how well it was able to handle both questing and combat once it got set up. I didn’t win my first attempt, but I came close—so I set my sights on tweaking the deck until I was able to consistently get some wins.
Much to my surprise, it seemed to be just what I was looking for! Here’s what I ended up with after all of my tweaking and experimenting was done:
Deck: Songs Beyond the Great River
Theme: The songs of Hobbits
“‘Perfect satisfaction, Mr. Gamgee,’ said Frodo. ‘Indeed, if you will believe it, he’s now one of the most famous people in all the lands, and they are making songs about his deeds from here to the Sea and beyond the Great River.’ Sam blushed, but he looked gratefully at Frodo, for Rosie’s eyes were shining and she was smiling at him.”
—The Scouring of the Shire, The Return of the King
Bilbo Baggins (The Hunt for Gollum)
Folco Boffin (The Dungeons of Cirith Gurat)
Sam Gamgee (The Black Riders)
2x Bill the Pony (The Black Riders)
3x Gandalf (Core Set)
2x Gléowine (Core Set)
2x Rivendell Minstrel (The Hunt for Gollum)
3x Rosie Cotton (The Mountain of Fire)
1x A Burning Brand (Conflict at the Carrock)
3x Fast Hitch (The Dead Marshes)
3x Fireside Song (Beneath the Sands)
2x Friend of Friends (The Mountain of Fire)
2x Love of Tales (The Long Dark)
3x Resourceful (The Watcher in the Water)
2x Ring Mail (The Long Dark)
1x Song of Battle (The Dead Marshes)
3x Song of Eärendil (Road to Rivendell)
2x Song of Hope (The Black Serpent)
2x Song of Kings (The Hunt for Gollum)
3x Song of Travel (The Hills of Emyn Muil)
2x Song of Wisdom (Conflict at the Carrock)
3x Sword-thain (The Dread Realm)
3x A Test of Will (Core Set)
3x Daeron’s Runes (Foundations of Stone)
3x Heed the Dream (Flight of the Stormcaller)
3x Sneak Attack (Core Set)
3 Heroes, 56 Cards
This is a combo deck that buffs Rosie Cotton’s willpower to ridiculous levels.
The core of the deck revolves around putting Sword-thain on Rosie Cotton, followed by Fireside Song. After that, every Song I play on Rosie nets her an additional +1 willpower, which she can to add to the quest, and later in the game add to Sam’s attack power, allowing them to one-shot tough Enemies together.
Since it relies on a three-card combo, this deck has a lot of card draw to help me find what I’m looking for. Between Bilbo Baggins and Gléowine, I can easily draw 3 cards each round. Rivendell Minstrel fetches Fireside Song when I need it. Even Gandalf can help me draw extra cards if I don’t have my combo pieces yet. It’s vital that I find my three key cards as quickly as possible, because the deck can’t really do much of anything without them.
Threat management is vital for the first several rounds of the game. Until my engine is up and running, I can’t deal with any Enemies (even weak ones will throw me off) so I have to do whatever it takes to stay below their engagement costs. An early game Gandalf can work wonders in this regard, and of course when the going gets tough I can always send Folco Boffin on his merry way.
To keep the wheels sufficiently greased, I usually mulligan for Resourceful. Once I have two copies, I generally trigger Folco’s ability (spending his resource first, of course) to get me down into Secrecy levels so I can play it for cheap. Those resources really help me to play out my ever-growing hand quickly—which is important, since this deck is going to flounder until it has played a substantial number of cards down on the table.
Bilbo Baggins is my dedicated defender, and I usually have to draw through my whole deck before he’s really ready to start tanking big Enemies. I’d like to get A Burning Brand, Friend of Friends (the other copy goes on Sam) and both copies of Ring Mail on him before taking on anything scary. Fortunately once things get going Rosie doesn’t have too much trouble questing for 10+ (by herself, not to mention contributions from Sam and my Allies) so as long as I keep my threat low I can afford to keep Enemies in the Staging Area for a long time while I wait to draw into everything I need.
By the end of the game, I’m looking to have a single copy of Fast Hitch on Sam, Bilbo, and Rosie each, allowing me to quest for a large number and still defend, attack, and kill up to 2 Enemies each round.
It takes a few rounds to get going, but it’s also pretty good at staying under the radar until it’s ready to wreck face—and once everything is set up, Rosie turns out to be quite the force to be reckoned with!
While I’m not used to using cards like Gléowine and Rivendell Minstrel in Hobbit decks, the deck’s focus on Song cards makes me feel better about the inclusion of these two (both of whom are musicians themselves).
The card which I feel really sticks out from a thematic perspective, though, is Sword-thain. It’s not really related to the deck’s central theme at all, so it feels out of place. It’s clearly a key part of my combo, though—allowing me to attach all of those Hero-only Songs to Rosie—so I just have to accept it as a necessary concession for the deck to function mechanically.
The play’s the thing
Win ratio: 3 / 6
I was so tickled with how well this quirky little combo deck seemed to work against this very difficult quest that I decided to play an extra game. I’m glad I did, too, because I managed to net myself an additional win in the process.
As long as I was able to get my board state established (which usually took about 5 rounds) I was able to gain enough momentum to achieve victory. All of my successful games were long, lasting between 15-19 rounds, and in each one Bilbo had to sacrifice himself on the last turn in order to guarantee myself a clean victory. The key was drawing through most (and sometimes all) of my deck before engaging Murzag, taking my time and using Gandalf to reduce my threat whenever necessary. At some point nothing was a match for Rosie’s willpower, and it was just a matter of ensuring that I didn’t bite off more than I could chew.
In my most successful win, I used Gandalf’s direct damage twice to deal an extra point of damage to the Nazgûl, saving me two rounds in the process. Other games I had already used up all of my Gandalfs, and had to chip away at the Nazgûl one round at a time. My best game ended with only 4 tokens on To the Tower, but the other two were much closer, with me sitting nervously at 9 tokens.
Every game that I lost was due to the same card: Warrior of Nurn. Its 18 engagement cost was too low for me to deal with in the early game, and if I didn’t draw into an early Gandalf, I was forced to discard Folco Boffin earlier than I would have liked to avoid engaging it. Then I didn’t have enough willpower to quest successfully, causing my threat to raise again, and eventually I’d be forced to deal with the Warrior before I could safely defend or kill it, leading to undefended attacks followed shortly thereafter by a quick death.
The other card I was worried about ruining my day was the infamous Treachery card, The Master’s Malice, but it never ended up being a big deal. I had two ways to deal with it: 1) Getting out a Song of Travel, granting me the Spirit icon needed to play A Test of Will, or 2) putting a Song of Kings on Bilbo so that he had the Leadership icon, allowing me to declare Leadership characters to be immune to the Treachery’s effect, meaning I wouldn’t lose any of my squishy Hobbit Heroes to it. I was always able to get one of these two contingency plans in place before Malice reared its ugly head.
I was worried that I’d be forced to build yet another boring mono-Tactics Gondor deck in order to defeat this quest, but I’m pleasantly surprised to have discovered that that was not the case. Even better, I was able to defeat a very difficult quest with a Hobbit deck—an archetype that I feel is supremely underrated in the community. Hobbit decks are much more powerful than I think a lot of people realize!
It was fun to have found such an offbeat solution to this puzzle, but I have to say that in general The Morgul Vale isn’t really my style. Its heavy focus on combat without many other mechanics to spice it up leaves me feeling underwhelmed. I know it’s a favorite quest to many, though, and I can certainly understand the appeal. Unlike some of the other quests from this cycle, The Morgul Vale remains a dynamic and difficult challenge, with many possible strategies leading to success, even if in the end it’s not my cup of tea.
Next week, I’ll be returning to my Path Less Traveled series to finish up the Sands of Harad Deluxe Expansion with The Long Arm of Mordor. After that, I’ll spend a little time looking back on my games in Nightmare Heirs of Númenor / Against the Shadow, reflecting on the ups and downs of the cycle. Until next time!