I have come to the rather firm conclusion that GenCon—Indianapolis’ board and roleplaying game convention—is my favorite event of the year. It’s better than Christmas and my birthday combined. No other annual event rivals the perfect storm of table top roleplaying games, Lord of the Rings LCG, a little too much beer, seeing good friends, and making new ones.
Every year has a slightly different mix of those things. This year’s highlights were:
- Picking up my copy of Orc Stabr from the author in person
- Demoing, falling in love with, buying, and playing Spirit Island
- Brunch every morning at Café Patachou
- Running into 4 separate friends from around the country (mostly by surprise)
- And of course, The Wizard’s Quest and other LotR LCG adventures
Let’s talk about that last bullet point in a little more detail, shall we?
A word on spoilers
Before we start, you should know that this post contains full-text spoilers for every card in The Wizard’s Quest. But it’s also worth noting that even if you’re the sort of person who usually avoids encounter spoilers, that might not apply so much here due to the build-it-yourself nature of this quest. You’ll probably end up flipping through all of the cards as you put together the encounter deck anyway, so the spoilers are less of a big deal here.
Alright, let’s get to it!
The Wizard’s Quest
This year’s GenCon adventure is called The Wizard’s Quest, and it’s pretty different from anything we’ve seen in the game up to this point. In addition to the normal cooperative mode of play that we all know and love, this quest also has a competitive variant for 2-4 players, divided as evenly as possible into two teams.
The way it works is this: each team constructs an encounter deck from the cards in the set and then passes it to the other team. Each plays against the deck the other designed, pausing at certain points (after the Planning and Travel Phases as well as the end of the round) to keep the two games in sync and watch each other’s progress. The team who beats the quest first wins—or, more likely, the team to survive longer wins. If both teams win during the same phase group, score is used as a tie breaker. If they both lose during the same phase group, Sauron is the only winner, as he so often is.
To make the competitive mode even more interesting, many of the quest and encounter cards give the opposing team choices about precisely how they want to wreak havoc on their opponent’s board state. Any cards that search the encounter deck for something are always worded so that the opposing team is the one doing the searching—this serves the dual purpose of keeping the contents of the encounter deck a mystery and ensuring you’ll be hit by the worst cards at the worst times.
It’s worth noting that these effects do make the quest a little strange when played in cooperative mode. The rules state to choose whatever effect hurts the players the most, but that can often be a little hard to determine—especially since many of these choices are designed to be lose-lose in the first place. It feels a bit awkward to be offered a choice, but to be asked to pick the option you least want to see (and it’s a little hard to stay “objective” while making that choice). If I were building an encounter deck for the express purpose of playing it cooperatively, I’d probably make an effort to minimize these sorts of effects.
Build your own quest!
So how exactly does one go about building an encounter deck for The Wizard’s Quest? Well, you start by picking the Quest cards.
Every Quest deck is starts with the same Stage 1, Radagast’s Request, which adds the beneficial Rhosgobel Location to the Staging Area as well as two 0-cost Locations or Enemies as chosen by the opposing team (more on encounter card costs in a bit). It has 10 quest points and cannot be cleared until Rhosgobel is cleared. Once Rhosgobel is explored, it flips over and becomes a Rider of Mirkwood, an Enemy that can’t be engaged until you reach Stage 3 (but which can wreak various kinds of havoc depending on which other cards you decide to put in your encounter deck).
Stage 2 is where you get to make your first deckbuilding decision. The A-sides of all of the Stage 2 cards are all the same, allowing the opposing team to fetch a 1-cost (for one player) or 2-cost (for two or more players) card from the top 5 cards of the encounter deck and reveal it—and its effects cannot be canceled. There are 3 different B-sides to choose from, however, and each one plays profoundly differently from the others.
A New Terror Abroad makes immediate use of the Rider of Mirkwood in the Staging Area. This Stage has 5 quest points plus 5 more for each player, and forces the first player to endure an attack from the Rider at the start of each Quest phase. It might be a good choice if you want to construct a deck with lots of nasty Shadow effects in it, like the one on Patch of Midnight which reveals an extra card whenever you chump block.
Another option for your Stage 2 is Carried Away, which requires 20 quest points to clear. As soon as it’s revealed, the opposing team steals one Ally from each player and places them under the Quest card. No more copies of those Allies may enter play until the Quest stage is cleared—and even then, those Allies are returned to their owners’ hands, not returned to their control. In one game that we played, our opponents took away our healers—and we proceeded to get cut down mercilessly by direct damage over the next few rounds. This Stage can be really rough if you’re not prepared for it!
A Fork in the Road has only 5 quest points, but fetches a 2-cost Location (of the opposing team’s choice) from the encounter deck and marks it with a token. To beat this Stage, the players must first place 5 progress on the the Quest, then travel to the marked Location and clear it. 2-cost Locations can get pretty nasty—one particularly memorable example is The Wargs’ Glade, which causes Warg Enemies to Surge and fetches a Warg Enemy from the encounter deck once cleared. When I first saw A Fork in the Road among my options for Stage 2, I thought it was a little weak—but now that I’ve seen what a well-placed Location can do to your board state I’ve realized that it’s not quite the pushover I initially thought.
You also get to choose between 3 different Stage 3 cards. Just like the previous Stage, the A-sides are all the same, allowing the opposing team to search the top 5 cards for a 2-cost (for one player) or 3-cost (for two or more players) encounter card to reveal it—and it once again it cannot be canceled. But the real meat is found on the B-sides of the cards.
One choice is Return to Rhosgobel, which pits the players directly against the Rider of Mirkwood that has been sitting in the Staging Area. Its engagement cost gets set to 0, and it can’t take any more damage than the number of progress placed on the quest card. If the players can defeat the Rider before it cuts them to ribbons, they win the game.
The Tower of Sorcery takes a completely different approach. It requires 20 progress, and simply reveals an extra Treachery card each round after the players commit to the quest. This could be a pretty harrowing finale if you stuffed the encounter deck with lots of nasty Treacheries like Evil Storm to wear down your opponents’ characters and prevent them from making progress.
The final option, Dungeons of the Necromancer, is probably the nastiest of the three—at least it was when we faced it. It takes one Hero from each player and adds an Enemy to the Staging Area to guard it. This can be especially difficult to deal with if you packed the encounter deck full of Hill Trolls! The players must kill the Enemies guarding their Heroes to retrieve them and place 15 progress on the quest card in order to win the game. Losing a Hero is always rough—but with a solid board state and a little luck you might be able to blitz through this Stage in one turn, something that’s hard to do with either of the other Stage 3s.
Once you’ve chosen a Stage 2 and Stage 3 for your Quest deck, you’re ready to move on to building the encounter deck.
Get in touch with your inner Necromancer
Building the encounter deck itself is the best part. The encounter cards from the Wizard’s Quest are redesigned versions of encounter cards from throughout the game’s life. You’ll find plenty of old Core Set frenemies here, like the infamous The Necromancer’s Reach (which was solely responsible for no less than 11 Hero deaths over 3 games, I’ll have you know), Eastern Crows, and Goblin Sniper, as well as cards drawn from other quests like Attack on Dol Guldur, Flies and Spiders, The Wilds of Rhovanion, and even several Nightmare quests.
But if you look closely, you’ll see that almost all of these cards have been redesigned. Most of them retain a similar mechanical feel to the original, but with several key differences. Necromancer’s Reach now has an equally nasty Shadow Effect. The Eastern Crows have an extra point of attack and HP, but no longer Surge unless there’s already a copy in the discard pile. The Goblin Sniper’s stats have been all moved around making it a much scarier Enemy to face—but its engagement cost has also been reduced to 38, making it much easier to get it out of the Staging Area through normal means. The card backs have even been redesigned—they still show the Eye of Sauron, but the image is much darker and more subdued.
There are two different ways to construct an encounter deck, using either the Quick-build rules or the Advanced-build rules. Both methods are pretty fun in their own ways.
There are 14 different encounter sets in The Wizard’s Quest, but instead of symbols they are simply numbered 15 through 28. (Why do they start at 15, you might ask? Because this year’s Fellowship event, The Woodland Realm, can be combined with this Quest and contains sets 1 through 14). Each encounter set consists of five cards, and the sum of those cards’ cost is always 3.
Under the Quick-build rules, an encounter deck is built by choosing 7 different encounter sets and shuffling them together. You can do the selection randomly if you want to (the rulesheet even recommends trying this when playing in cooperative mode) but it’s also fun to look through the cards included in each set an try to find synergies between them. Each encounter set has a distinct mechanical focus.
It would be easy to dismiss the Quick-build rules as just being for folks who don’t have the time or patience to follow the more Advanced rules (which I will explain below) but I think that would be a mistake. The process of choosing between packs of cards reminds me a lot of the Star Wars LCG (may the force be with it) which was—in many ways—interesting because of its unique take on deck construction. Evaluating encounter sets as a whole puts a completely different spin on deckbuilding that you won’t experience if you only think about each card as an individual entity. It has an entirely different feel, and can be a fun creative endeavor in its own right.
With that being said, there’s another method of building the encounter deck that offers a greater depth of choice and allows you to get even tighter synergies, called the “Advanced-build” rules.
Pretending to be Caleb Grace
Under the Advanced-build rules, you can break apart those encounter sets as much as you like, so long as your resultant deck follows these constraints:
- The costs of all cards must sum to 21
- The deck must contain exactly 35 cards
- The deck must contain at least 10 each of Locations, Treacheries, and Enemies
- You can’t have more than 1 copy of any given Unique card
- You can’t have more than 3 copies of any given non-Unique card
That’s it! In practice, I find myself following this procedure to build decks:
- Separate the cards into three piles (Locations, Treacheries, and Enemies)
- Choose 10 of each
- Find out what my total cost is so far
- Choose my last 5 cards, trying to make the budget add up to 21
- Tweak the deck, upgrading / downgrading cards based on cost until I’m happy
It helps to have a general understanding of the power differences between different cost cards, so here are a few examples.
Cost 0 cards tend to have fairly low stats, and often their abilities aren’t guaranteed. They can be rough on the players under the right circumstances, but they can fizzle just as often.
Cost 1 cards are generally pretty solid encounter cards. They’re not going to end the game by themselves, but they definitely put pressure on the players.
Cost 2 cards start to get pretty rough. They usually have fairly high stats, and they’re the sort of cards that are likely to draw the players’ focus for a turn or two as they try to clear the obstacle.
Cost 3 cards are show-stoppers. They’re boss-level Enemies or other super-nasties that can easily turn the tide of the game under the right circumstances (it’s probably no mistake that they’re all Unique, too).
Note that you’re allowed to combine multiple copies of The Wizard’s Quest together. Like the Core Set, there are several 2-of and 1-of cards, so you may want to pick up an extra copy or two to maximize your deckbuilding options. But unlike the Core Set, you can actually get good use out of all of those extra encounter cards by building multiple decks simultaneously.
There’s more than one way to kill a Hero
Before I started flipping through the encounter cards for this quest, I wasn’t sure how interesting the encounter building would be. I thought it might just be a case of throwing together a mishmash of the nastiest encounter cards I could afford.
But as it turns out, the deckbuilding is pretty deep. There are a surprisingly large number of different synergies to exploit. Within the pack you’ll find the seeds for a direct-damage deck, a deck that tries to threat the players out, a Warg Surge deck, a Troll deck, a Treachery-heavy deck, a control deck, and more. Just flipping through the pack gets my mind turning on ways I could combine encounter cards to nefarious effect.
To prove it, here are two decklists that I built with two copies of The Wizard’s Quest that play completely differently from one another:
Deck 1: Why is it always Trolls?
This deck uses big Enemies and nasty Shadow Effects to hit the players hard. They’ll need to tank big attacks throughout the game. Particularly devious is the inclusion of several Attachment-hate cards to punish big Hero defenders. Many of the Treacheries will have no effect other than to Surge in the early game, thinning the deck to just the nasty Enemies.
1. Radagast’s Request
2. A New Terror Abroad
3. Dungeons of the Necromancer
1x Dark Bats 
1x Dol Guldur Orcs 
2x Venomous Spider 
2x Spider of Dol Guldur 
3x Hill Troll 
1x Bane of Amon Lanc 
1x Nazgûl of Dol Guldur 
3x Forest Gate 
3x Pitch-dark Thicket 
2x Hunter’s Lookout 
2x Troll Cave 
3x Pursued by Shadow 
3x Befouled Equipment 
3x Smoking Blood 
3x Restless Hunters 
2x Weighed Down 
If you’re using Quick-build rules, you could approximate this deck using these encounter sets: 15, 16, 20, 22, 23, 25, 26
Deck 2: Dark Magic and Fell Beasts
In contrast to the deck above, this one combines multiple small Enemies with direct damage effects in an attempt to nickle-and-dime the players to death. More than half of the cards in the deck have a Shadow Effect granting the Enemy +1 attack or worse—making it for players to underestimate those small Enemies. The Locations in this quest can be deceptively nasty, too, and can make it hard to keep making forward progress.
1. Radagast’s Request
2. A Fork in the Road
3. The Tower of Sorcery
1x Forest Flies 
3x Dark Bats 
3x Dol Guldur Orcs 
3x Howling Warg 
2x Necromancer’s Warg 
1x Hunting Warg 
2x Goblin Sniper 
2x Necromancer’s Pass 
3x Pine Slopes 
2x Patch of Midnight 
1x The Sorcerer’s Tower 
1x The Wargs’ Glade 
1x Twilight Hall 
3x Swarming Mosquitoes 
3x The Necromancer’s Reach 
2x Evil Storm 
2x Power Sevenfold 
If you’re using Quick-build rules, you could approximate this deck using these encounter sets: 17, 18, 19, 21, 24, 27, 28
It feels good to be bad
Alright, so that’s a whole lot of talk about how the quest works. But how does it play? Is competitive Lord of the Rings LCG any fun?
Yes! But I wouldn’t want to play it all the time.
It’s a really interesting reversal to be cheering whenever I see a nasty Treachery flop for my opponents. It’s especially fun when they don’t know what’s in your encounter deck—you get that thrill of seeing some crazy combo go off or watching the other team groaning at the nasty surprise you hid in there. It’s tense and exciting! It’s not a feeling that exists elsewhere in the game, and it’s fun to finally be on the other side of things for a change.
That being said, I suspect that LotR LCG’s meta isn’t well balanced for competitive play. There are a few player deck archetypes (Vilya, Dwarves, Erestor & Outlands) that quickly outstrip all other decks, and in a competitive environment it’s less viable to play the sorts of off-beat or suboptimal decks I’m used to being able to bring to my LotR LCG meetups. It might be possible to compensate by including cards in the encounter deck to counter the most popular player decks—but I’m skeptical that even that would be enough.
Ultimately, though, I just prefer the camaraderie and social atmosphere built from working together towards a common goal over friendly competition. There’s a reason that cooperative games hit my gaming table way more often than competitive ones, after all!
But that’s totally okay
Even if I only play competitive mode every once in a while, I’m still really excited about The Wizard’s Quest. Customizable encounter decks is something I have wanted for a long time—I’ve even played around with some house rules for them (to only moderate success).
The Wizard’s Quest makes it really easy to build custom quests, and even provides some nice guidelines for how to balance them! If I wanted something a little easier—perhaps if I wanted to test decks against a vanilla quest, for instance—I could just reduce the total cost to something like 18. And if I wanted a Nightmare-equivalent version of this quest, I could push the cost in the other direction.
This product sits in kind of a strange place as a designed-for-competitive variant of my favorite cooperative game. But as it turns out, it’s really fun to build encounter decks, so I’m willing to overlook some of its awkwardness and say that I really like it. I’m not sure how often I’m actually going to play it—but it has me dreaming about deckbuilding in a whole new way, which makes it really special.
Next on Darkling Door…
I’ll be returning to my Path Less Traveled series and building a new deck to take on the second quest of The Wilds of Rhovanion, Lost in Mirkwood!