Armed with the new player cards from The Road Darkens, it’s time for me to set out on my journey into the first quest of the box, The Ring Goes South. This quest spans several key moments in the book: it begins with the Council of Elrond, then moves on to the snowy passes of Caradhras, and then heads South across the plains of Hollin to finally face off against the Watcher in the Water at the Doors of Durin.
There’s lots of ground to cover here, so let’s get walking!
What we’re up against
Because the plot of this box is just the narrative of The Lord of the Rings, I’m not going to go out of my way to avoid story spoilers. If you’re the sort of person who wants to avoid spoiling the quest mechanics, though, you can skip over the collapsed sections of this post—they contain a detailed analysis of what to expect.
It’s dangerous business, Frodo
The Ring Goes South is a fairly long journey, consisting of four separate Quest Stages. The first Stage represents the Council of Elrond, granting the players a choice between some free bonuses to start out the quest—and it’s done in a way that feels pretty darn thematic: they players reveal cards from the tops of their decks until there are four revealed cards. They then argue over what to do with them: one can be played for free, one added to its player’s hand, one shuffled into its player’s deck, and one discarded. The council is over after the first Planning phase, though, after which you move on to the second Stage and take your first real steps into the perils of the quest.
The primary new mechanic here is that the Locations can take damage—usually this is done whenever a player engages an Enemy, but some of the encounter cards have effects that can damage Locations as well. These damage tokens do nothing until the Location is cleared, after which a Forced effect on the Location itself does something bad to the players based on the number of damage tokens on it. And just in case you were thinking you could short-circuit those bad effects by simply not traveling to Locations, each Quest Stage forces the players to Travel whenever they can.
This quest has two boss Enemies. The first one, the Great Warg Chief, comes out when you reach Stage 3 (if he’s not out already—he does start shuffled into the encounter deck). You’re not required to defeat him in order to win, but his stats are beefy enough that you probably won’t be able to leave him in the Staging Area for long, and you probably don’t want to tank his attack round after round. He’s especially nasty since he brings one of his Warg buddies along to join him in the fight. It helps to go into this quest with some idea of how you’re going to beat him.
The second boss, the Watcher in the Water, shows up once you reach the fourth and final Quest Stage. It takes Frodo hostage as soon as it appears, and you have to deal 6 damage to it to get him back. There’s no reason to do more damage than that, though, since it has the Indestructible keyword and therefore can’t be killed regardless. Once you’ve recovered Frodo, you’ll be allowed to place progress on the Doors of Durin, the final Location of the quest. While the Doors of Durin is the Active Location, you’re permitted to have a second Active Location as well—an interesting twist that keeps the Location damage mechanic relevant all the way up until the end of the Quest.
Once you’ve recovered the Ring-bearer and cleared the Doors, you’ve won the quest, and brought Frodo one step closer to the gates of Mordor.
You can see everything the encounter deck has to offer over at the Hall of Beorn.
Building a deck
I’m going to start by playing through this quest in “minimum purchase” mode, using only player cards from the Core Set and The Road Darkens. Since there’s only one new Hero in this box, I might as well start with him. Into the deck you go, Gandalf! While I’m at it, I might as well throw in all of your new toys as well.
But Hero Gandalf’s 14 threat poses some interesting deckbuilding challenges, especially in a small cardpool with few low-threat Heroes. It would probably be useful to hook him up with a Spirit Hero, giving him easier access to a few key cards. The Galadhrim’s Greeting is an obvious choice, buying me a little extra breathing room. Unexpected Courage is practically required, too—Gandalf’s stats are too good to choose just one to use each round! And Bilbo Baggins is a solid option both for his willpower and to ensure I can fetch a Wizard Pipe for Gandalf as quickly as possible.
But which Spirit Hero should I choose? Dúnhere is right out—I’d never be able to keep my threat low enough for his ability to come in handy. Eleanor‘s low threat would be nice, and I suppose her ability could come in handy from time to time, but for a mere 2 more threat I can get the significantly better statline of Éowyn. There’s a reason she ends up in most of my decks for Path Less Traveled! Éowyn it is.
So she’ll cover questing and Gandalf can cover—well, anything, really—so who should be my third Hero? I’m tempted to try going for someone with low threat, but even if I choose 8-threat Denethor I’ll be stuck with a starting threat of 31. With a high starting threat like that, I’m going to need to be ready to engage mid-level Enemies starting from round one, no matter who I pick as my third Hero. With that in mind, maybe I’ll do better if I choose someone who can help out with combat in the early game. Aragorn has the ability to commit to the quest while still being ready for combat, and he and Gandalf can combine to reach the magic number of 6 attack needed to take out many of the mid-tier Enemies in one shot, so I’ll go with him instead.
From there, I should be able to fill in the deck with all of my favorite Leadership and Spirit cards from the Core Set. I don’t have to pay quite as much attention to my sphere balance since Gandalf can basically pay for cards of either color; I can even include a few cards from spheres that I don’t have represented, but if I do so I’ll want to keep them cheap—ideally only 1 or 0 cost—since Gandalf is the only one who can pay for them, and it takes some effort to get those cards on top of my deck for him to do so.
As I fill in the rest of my deck, I’ll pay special attention to 1 or 0 cost Events, since Gandalf can easily pay for them from the top of the deck during any phase. Whenever he does so, it’s almost like getting to draw a free card (since the next card automatically flips over). This trick can make Gandalf decks surprisingly efficient!
Frodo Baggins (The Road Darkens)
Aragorn (Core Set)
Éowyn (Core Set)
Gandalf (The Road Darkens)
2x Bilbo Baggins (The Road Darkens)
2x Faramir (Core Set)
3x Galadriel (The Road Darkens)
3x Guard of the Citadel (Core Set)
1x Henamarth Riversong (Core Set)
2x Lórien Guide (Core Set)
2x Silverlode Archer (Core Set)
3x Snowbourn Scout (Core Set)
2x Son of Arnor (Core Set)
2x Wandering Took (Core Set)
1x Celebrían’s Stone (Core Set)
3x Fellowship of the Ring (The Road Darkens)
3x Gandalf’s Staff (The Road Darkens)
2x Steward of Gondor (Core Set)
1x Unexpected Courage (Core Set)
3x Wizard Pipe (The Road Darkens)
2x Common Cause (Core Set)
2x Ever Vigilant (Core Set)
3x Flame of Anor (The Road Darkens)
2x Hasty Stroke (Core Set)
2x Sneak Attack (Core Set)
2x The Galadhrim’s Greeting (Core Set)
2x Valiant Sacrifice (Core Set)
3 Heroes, 50 Cards
Leading the deck
One of the strengths of this deck is its flexibility. All four of the Heroes (including Frodo) can be sent on the quest if needed, for a whopping starting willpower of 11 (12 with a discard to Éowyn). Aragorn and Gandalf both have large 5 hitpoint pools, too, meaning that they can take an undefended hit or two if I end up needing to take some risks during the questing phase while the rest of the deck gets set up.
But once the deck is humming along with a few Allies in play, I can hold back any of Frodo, Aragorn, or Gandalf to help me with the combat phase. Frodo’s ability makes him a good defender in a pinch, and Gandalf and Aragorn often have enough attack between the two of them to kill something without any extra help.
The only truly vital card in the deck is Wizard Pipe, so I usually mulligan for it. There are three copies in the deck, and two copies of Bilbo Baggins to help me fetch it, so it never takes long to find. Once Gandalf is puffing away, I can use his resources to help me pay for whatever card is most pressing at the time.
That’s all there is to know about the deck. As far as Gandalf decks go, this one is remarkably straightforward!
The play’s the thing
Victory on: Normal mode
It took me a few plays to get my footing, but eventually I hit upon the right combination of good luck and decent stats needed to claim my victory. The Ring Goes South can certainly be tough—and it has some opportunities for poorly timed encounter draws to ruin a good run—but all in all it’s one of those quests that you do better at each time you play. It’s plenty beatable with a well tuned deck!
Give me the details!
This quest makes strong demands from every quarter. I lost my first game because I wasn’t questing hard enough. I didn’t manage to keep clearing the Active Location every round, meaning that it would build up too much damage and end up wreaking havoc on my board state when I finally did clear it. After my first loss, I decided to retool my deck to be a little stronger during the Questing Phase, adding cards like Faramir, which helped a lot.
In my second game, I hit on a streak of particularly bad luck. The second Stage reveals cards from the encounter deck until the Staging Area has built up at least 2 threat per player. Since none of the Treacheries add any threat to the Staging Area, this effectively gives them all Surge. As a result, the opening shuffle can have a pretty strong impact on the quest’s difficulty. During my second game, between Treacheries and a Surging copy of Hound of Sauron I revealed 4 cards before hitting a card that got me to 2 threat—which happened to be the single copy of Great Warg Chief. By the end of the first round, I found myself unavoidably engaged with 5 Enemies, and I decided to scoop.
In my third game, I got a much nicer opening shuffle, and was able to make it all the way to the final Stage. But when it came time to face off against the Watcher in the Water, I found that I didn’t have enough attack power on the board to deal 6 damage to it and get Frodo back. Its 5 defense was far too much for me to consistently cut through with only Gandalf and Aragorn‘s native attack power, and eventually I crumbled under the weight of its relentless attacks.
Armed with the knowledge gained from my previous losses, in my fourth game I added some 2-attack Allies like Silverlode Archer and Son of Arnor, and made a point to get at least one out before I reached the final quest stage. This turned out to be enough to turn the tides; with just that extra 2 attack I could deal my 6 damage to the Watcher over the course of two rounds—fast enough to still have some board state left to clear the Doors of Durin and win the quest.
Despite the potentially swingy nature of the first few rounds, The Ring Goes South seems to be one of those quests that I got better at with each subsequent playthrough, indicating to me that developing a strategy plays a major part in defeating this quest. It required me to strike a balance between heavy questing and strong combat skills, making characters with well-rounded statblocks pretty useful.
With just The Road Darkens and a Core Set, The Ring Goes South feels tough, but fair. It’s not a quest that I revisit often with the full card pool, but it’s a good candidate for a middle-of-the-road quest without too many gimmicks, so if you’re looking for a “testing quest” to find out if your small-cardpool deck is up to snuff this one might be a good choice. I also find it amazing that the designers were able to pack so many iconic scenes from the books into this single quest; it hits quite a few strong narrative beats.
In Standalone mode, I’d give this quest a tepid recommendation; it’s neither a great quest nor a terrible one. Your enjoyment of it will come from how much you enjoy the theme, and what your ideal “vanilla quest” looks like.
But the way I evaluate the quest changes in Campaign mode; my mindset goes from short-term deck optimization to look more at the long-game. I’ll take a closer look at The Ring Goes South from that angle next time!
“Home is behind, the world ahead,
And there are many paths to tread.”