Oct 19, 2015

LotR LCG: The Mirkwood cycle

Ever since we got into the Lord of the Rings living card game over midsummer, we've been collecting the various expansions in some kind of order. The first releases after the core set were the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs, so you only need the core set to use them. In fact, our very first LotR LCG purchase included a Shadows of Mirkwood pack, namely The Dead Marshes, because my partner was keen on Boromir. Overall, the Mirkwood packs are tremendous value for money: not only are there some excellent player cards for all spheres, but almost all of the quests are good fun as well. If you're just getting into the game, I can't think of a better way to start collecting beyond the core set than the Mirkwood cycle adventure packs.

For this post, I thought I'd go through the packs one by one, sharing our experiences with the quest and discussing a player card or two.


The Hunt for Gollum - DL 4

The overall theme of the Shadows of Mirkwood cycle is Gollum: your heroes have been recruited by Gandalf to find the slimy bastard and bring him to the Elven-king's halls in Mirkwood. The first quest finds us searching for signs of Gollum along the banks of the Great River.

As I mentioned before, the notion that this quest is as difficult as A Journey Along the Anduin is ridiculous. The Hunt for Gollum is a fairly leisurely stroll along the river looking for clues. It's not a complete pushover; if, for instance, the Hunters from Mordor show up when there are several clue cards in play, things can get nasty. I have been defeated by this quest a few times! Most of the time it's fairly easy, but not boring; a basic, fun enough quest that's a nice introduction to further adventures in Middle-Earth, especially for new players devastated by A Journey Along the Anduin.

Card spotlight: Winged Guardian

I think there are some Eagle cards in just about every Mirkwood adventure pack, and my partner's deck is pretty much based on them by now. Winged Guardian is one of the best defenders in the early game, with a defence of 4 that's almost surreally high right after the core set. The cost of 2 is incredibly low, but the only downside is that Winged Guardian leaves play after defending, unless you spend a resource. Still, though, it's a brilliant card, and I don't know where we'd be without it. The Eagle cards are a great addition to any Tactics deck.


Conflict at the Carrock - DL 7

After finding Gollum's trail by the Great River, we hear that a group of Trolls has taken up residence at the Carrock, and Grimbeorn has gone to kill them, so off we go to give him a hand!

I've heard Conflict at the Carrock (which, by the way, sounds exactly like a WWE pay-per-view event) described as a quest that can't be beat on the first attempt. Well, I'm here to tell you that isn't true. This is basically a prequel version of the Hobbit saga expansion quest We Must Away, Ere Break of Day: there's a benign first stage, and then suddenly trolls, sacks and mayhem. This time, there are four trolls, and you have to defeat every troll in play to win.

Rather like our first multiplayer experience with We Must Away, our first swing at Carrock went disastrously wrong. We were playing three-handed (my Spirit/Lore, my partner's Team Boromir Tactics Eagles, and a Leadership dwarf deck), and not only did we pretty much barge straight into the quest trolls, but managed to draw a Hill Troll from the encounter deck as well! So now there were five trolls to deal with.

Strangely enough, we did just that: the dwarf deck laid into the Hill Troll and finished it off with a bit of help, just in time before the dwarves' threat got high enough that the trolls came in. To stop them from having to take on all four at once, both other decks voluntarily engaged one troll each. I had to chump block mine at first, but hell, I actually managed to do some damage in return with the help of the invaluable Haldir of Lórien! Meanwhile, the Tactics deck was holding its own quite nicely and using Horn of Gondor to benefit from all the chump blocking and, very appropriately, summon Beorn himself to help out. Over at the Leadership end, it's amazing what Thorin Oakenshield can do sometimes, and an improbable dwarven Steward of Gondor got enough resources in play to get us Grimbeorn's fantastic troll-fighting help.

Long story short, even though our situation looked worse than dire at one point, we defeated the trolls! This is a really, really good scenario, and we had a hell of a time. Although I can't imagine how I could ever manage to beat it solo, I was pleasantly surprised by how well my deck did in combat. I would highly recommend buying this adventure pack for the quest alone.

Card spotlights: A Burning Brand, Song of Wisdom

Having said that, if you use Lore, you want to get this pack for the player cards as well. A Burning Brand is a mainstay of Lore decks for its shadow-canceling ability; defending becomes that much more predictable, and you can laugh at Dol Guldur Beastmasters. The Khazad-dûm expansion already has some pretty damn nasty shadow cards, and they start getting nightmarish by Lost Realm, so this is a must-have.

I wanted to highlight Song of Wisdom as well because I use it myself in combination with A Burning Brand. The Mirkwood packs include four Song cards, one for each sphere, which you can attach to your heroes to give them that sphere's resource icon. This is obviously great for multi-sphere decks, since that hero's resources can then be used to pay for cards from both their original and new sphere. My heroes are Éowyn, Eleanor (both Spirit) and Beravor (Lore); giving Eleanor Song of Wisdom lets me use her resources to pay for both Spirit and Lore cards, which makes my life a lot easier. The Song cards can also let you do all kinds of other stuff that's dependent on your heroes' spheres. In my case, Song of Wisdom also means I can give Eleanor a Burning Brand, which, along with Protector of Lórien, makes her a reasonably competent defender.


A Journey to Rhosgobel - DL 6

After defeating the trolls, we follow Gollum's trail further along the Anduin, where we encounter Wilyador, a badly wounded great eagle. We can't save him, but Radagast can, so off we go to Rhosgobel.

This is another three-stage quest, where you race against time to get an Eagle ally to safety before time runs out: poor Wilyador takes two points of damage at the end of every round, and at the end of the quest, you have to heal him completely to succeed. To do this, you gather Athelas objectives, each of which will heal five points of damage from Wilyador. The trouble is, they don't tell you that. When you clear the second stage, the quest is over, and only then are you told that if you don't have at least one Athelas objective for every five damage on Wilyador, sorry, game over! Obviously this was the end of our first three-handed attempt, none of us having any idea this was coming as I absolutely refuse to spoil quest cards. This is just terrible, terrible design! Once you know this, though, you'll know you have to pace your questing appropriately.

A Journey to Rhosgobel may require the most specialized deck of all the Mirkwood scenarios; not only will some healing come in real handy, but there are also enemies in the encounter deck that can only be engaged by Eagles or cards with the "ranged" keyword. Luckily, we've got both eagles and healing in our decks; even more luckily, we didn't really need either on our two-handed attempt. This is a fun and different quest: threat is a complete non-issue, and deck abilities like healing and ranged combat that are normally just nice extras are suddenly vitally important. We like it!

Card spotlights: Escort from Edoras

Where my partner has eagles, I have my Rohan allies. Since Éowyn is one of my heroes, including Rohan characters feels thematically appropriate, but it's also extremely useful: since I mostly play two-handed with a Tactics deck, the questing tends to be mostly my responsibility, and Rohan allies are excellent questers. Case in point: Escort from Edoras. For a measly two Spirit resources, you get a one-time questing ally with four willpower. It's like having Gandalf along! When I started out with my Spirit/Lore deck from the core set, questing power and allies were my most immediate need, and Rohan is the answer.


Hills of Emyn Muil - DL 4

We here at this blog aren't afraid to voice controversial opinions. This is largely because no-one reads this blog, but unafraid we are nonetheless. Here's what the Tales from the Cards blog has to say about the Hills of Emyn Muil: "I’ll be blunt, this quest is widely regarded as the weakest of all the LOTR LCG scenarios, and I would have to concur." Or: "unremarkable and tedious". A bear called it "obnoxious" and "a tedious experience".

Well, they're all wrong. We like the Hills of Emyn Muil a lot. It's a different quest, both in terms of mechanics and theme, and stands out to its advantage in the Mirkwood cycle. The plot of the quest is that the heroes have lost Gollum's trail in the Emyn Muil, and have to search the area to find him again. There's only a single quest stage, and you don't clear the quest by getting enough progress, but by gathering victory points: the win condition is that you need to have twenty victory points and no Emyn Muil locations in play. In practice, this means clearing quite a few locations. The high initial threat can make this a bit tough, but if you can get rolling, the quest is challenging, but not frustrating. We've beaten it twice three-handed, but two-handed (Amazons/Tactics) took several attempts; we had an excellent time. Playing solo, I found the quest quite easy, but fun. The gorgeous art on the Emyn Muil locations deserves a special mention.

I fully understand that if what you love about the game is desperate, fast-paced combat or whatever, you won't enjoy this quest. To me, though, geography is vital to Tolkien's works, far more so than hacking and slashing your way through orcs and trolls and whatnot. I guess that's why this quest feels so thematically strong and satisfying to me. I strongly recommend it. Don't listen to the naysayers and enjoy yourself.

Card spotlight: Descendant of Thorondor

Yup, another eagle. What distinguishes Descendant of Thorondor is a great direct damage effect: you get to deal 2 damage to an enemy in the staging area when the Descendant enters or leaves play. This is a great combo with Meneldor's Flight, effectively letting you do 4 damage in the staging area for 4 resources (3 if you have Horn of Gondor). When you're up against a Goblin Sniper hiding behind high-threat enemies you really don't want to engage, or, Eru forbid, Hummerhorns, having a way to do damage in the staging area is absolutely brilliant.


The Dead Marshes - DL 5

Set in a very memorable part of Middle-earth, this adventure pack provides a climax of sorts to the whole cycle: we finally catch Gollum! Or, well, it's meant to, at least. I already talked about this quest before, so I won't repeat myself; suffice to say that it's boring, poorly designed and far too easy. You're chasing down Gollum and have to keep making escape tests, effectively questing twice, or he gathers enough resource tokens to escape. Theoretically, this is a bad thing, but in practice it just absolves you of bothering with the escape tests until he pops out of the encounter deck again - an encounter deck weak enough that you can hang around waiting for him. We once had him escape and then get discarded as a shadow card, meaning we had to work our way through the entire encounter deck and then some - and still won. This is easily the worst quest in the whole Mirkwood cycle.

Card spotlights: Boromir, Elfhelm

As I've mentioned, Boromir is the reason we bought this pack in the first place, and he's worth it. Not only does he have excellent stats, but his ability to ready at the cost of a threat increase can really save the day, letting him either defend multiple times or both defend and attack, for instance. A very powerful Tactics hero who's a great fit with the core set heroes as well.

Elfhelm is another fantastic Rohan ally with heroic stats, but more importantly, he negates threat gain from encounter cards and failed questing. Together with Éowyn's willpower boost from card discards, Elfhelm can negate damage from a failed questing phase, and he lets you laugh at Doomed 1 treacheries. Also, since his ability requires him to be ready during questing, he's also there to provide emergency defence or an extra bit of offensive punch in the combat phase.

The player cards aren't half bad in general, so even though the quest is the weakest in the whole cycle, the pack isn't a complete waste of money. Oh, and if you're looking to build a Hobbit deck, you'll need this pack.


Return to Mirkwood - DL 7

Having finally caught Gollum, our last task is to deliver him to King Thranduil. This is by far the most difficult quest of the cycle, as it should be. One player has to guard Gollum, which comes with all sorts of unspeakable treacheries, attacks and a constant increase in threat. As if that wasn't bad enough, the quest itself is difficult enough, and many of the enemies are just awful.

We gave this three attempts two-handed; we won once, but twice we drew a Hill Troll, Ungoliant's Spawn and Attercop, Attercop (or two) right off the bat, and there was just nothing we could do. So I'd say that while this is an appropriately epic quest, I find it a bit too dependent on the luck of the draw. One Attercop we can deal with; two (Attercop, Attercop, Attercop, Attercop?), Ungoliant's Spawn and a Hill Troll? No chance. When you do manage to beat a quest like this, it's immensely satisfying, but the other times it just felt pointless, because we never had a chance. That can be massively frustrating. I would think that as a general design principle, you wouldn't want people to walk away from your game thinking "why did I even bother".

Card spotlights: Dáin Ironfoot, Eagles of the Misty Mountains, Support of the Eagles, Mirkwood Runner, West Road Traveller

Yeah, there's a couple of these, for the simple reason that there's something in this pack for everyone. I absolutely agree with Tales from the Cards that if you're going to buy one Mirkwood pack for the player cards, make it this one.

First, the lord of the Iron Hills. I haven't covered any Leadership cards so far, for a simple reason: I play Spirit/Lore, and my partner uses Tactics. Dáin, though, is so essential a hero that we can hardly ignore him: he's the mainstay of the Dwarf deck, one of the most powerful theme decks in the game. As long as he's ready, Dáin provides all Dwarf characters with +1 attack and +1 willpower. This is an incredibly powerful effect, especially in multiplayer. Dwarf decks generally benefit from having several dwarven characters in play, and Dáin makes them all that much better. An absolute must-have if you want to build a Dwarf deck.

If Dáin is the keystone of dwarven synergy, Eagles of the Misty Mountains and Support of the Eagles complete the Eagle deck provided by the Mirkwood expansions. The Eagles are a great ally in their own right, with the added bonus that other Eagle cards leaving play can be attached to them to boost their combat stats further.

Support of the Eagles, on the other hand, lets you lend any eagle ally's attack or defense abilities to your heroes. These are both tremendous cards that give eagle-themed Tactics decks a whole new dimension.

How many good things can I say about Mirkwood Runner? At the moment, there are exactly two (2) Spirit or Lore allies with an attack higher than two. This pretty much means that even Mirkwood Runner's base attack of 2 is considerable, but it's the special ability that makes this card so noteworthy: when attacking alone, Mirkwood Runner ignores an enemy's defence stat. So you can either lay down two damage on just about any enemy, or add an extra two attack to Elfhelm and whoever else you've got on hand for the job. In our usual two-handed setup, the combination of one point of initial damage from Thalin and a guaranteed two from Mirkwood Runner is enough to see to quite a few enemies, letting me help out with combat so the Tactics deck can concentrate on the nasty stuff. When I play solo, Mirkwood Runner probably accounts for 80% of all combat damage I inflict, my favorite tactic for taking out large enemies being to Forest Snare them and let Mirkwood Runner look after the rest. An absolutely essential card go make Lore decks a bit more fighty.

And finally, West Road Traveller. Two willpower for two resources is still a fantastic deal. How I could ever have made it through We Must Away without my three West Road Travellers, I don't know. Their location-switching ability is a bit marginal, but it can be useful to avoid some nasty location effects that are keyed to the refresh phase, like raising threat. Mostly, though, these ladies do the legwork on questing along with Éowyn, and they're absolutely indispensable. It would be a very strange Spirit deck that left them out, unless there was a very specific theme that for some reason excludes incredibly useful cards like this one.


Overall, the Shadows of Mirkwood adventure packs are excellent. We quite liked both Conflict at the Carrock and Hills of Emyn Muil. A Journey to Rhosgobel is very good, despite the last quest stage being glaringly stupid the first time around. The Hunt for Gollum is fun, but a bit too easy; Return to Mirkwood is a good quest that suffers from being randomly murderously difficult. Dead Marshes is the only dud in the whole cycle, and even that pack comes with some very good player cards to offset the disappointing quest. All in all, this is a really good set of expansions for a truly fantastic game.


Finally, a deck update. We're aiming to sort of more or less get the various expansions in order, but I do have to admit that I cheated a bit and grabbed a copy of The Lost Realm. Eriador is a region very dear to me, not least because my first role-playing campaign ever was set there, so I was really keen to get Lost Realm, and eventually succumbed to the temptation. And hey, it comes with Neil Young Aragorn. So far, I've only included a couple of cards from it; I switched my copies of Lore of Imladris for Athelas, if only to have a way of dealing with Condition attachments after a traumatic experience with Watchful Eyes, and included a side quest. Side quests are a new card type introduced in The Lost Realm: you can play a side quest from your hand to the staging area, accumulate progress on it like on any other card, and reap benefits when you complete it. This one, Gather Information, lets each player search their deck for a card of their choice and add it to their hand. For a measly four progress, that's brilliant in multiplayer! It also comes with the added bonus of being a reliable way to delay advancing a main quest in scenarios like We Must Away.

I've wanted to stick to a single deck as much as possible, and so far I feel I've been quite successful with it. Obviously some quests would become much easier if I customized my deck to suit them more precisely, but to me, that takes away so much of the fun of deck-building. I did at this point decide to make one exception. I've found that solo play is in many ways quite different than playing with several others; so far, one key difference has been that multiplayer games tend to take far less turns. This is especially true since my deck has both a lower starting threat than the others I tend to play with, and because I have the most powerful threat management tools. At one point, I've actually managed to lower my threat below 20 in solo play! Given that Beravor and Gleowiné provide me with plentiful card draw, it hasn't been uncommon for me to work through my entire deck in a solo game. This was obviously why I included a copy of Will of the West, which lets me recycle my discard pile into my deck. In multiplayer, though, Will of the West is pretty much a waste of space, because the discard piles rarely get big enough to justify using it. On the other hand, the Gather Information side quest is fantastic in multiplayer, but not really very useful in a solo game where I end up drawing my entire deck. So what I've decided to do is have a sideboard of cards that I can swap in for solo play. In addition to Will of the West, I decided to include Resourceful for a laugh, just in case I have another brush with Secrecy!

Next time around, I'll be sharing some of my solo experiences. Until then, here's my deck as of this writing:

The Amazons

52 cards: 26 Spirit, 21 Lore, 5 neutral; 3 heroes, 25 allies, 10 attachments, 13 events, 1 side quest


Allies: 25 (13/9/3)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
Escort from Edoras (AJtR) x2
Westfold Horse-Breaker (THfG) x2
West Road Traveller (RtM) x3
Haldir of Lórien (AJtR)
Daughter of the Nimrodel x3
Mirkwood Runner (RtM) x2
Gléowine x2
Henamarth Riversong
Gandalf (Core)
Gandalf (OHaUH) x2

Attachments: 10 (1/8/1)
Unexpected Courage
Forest Snare x2
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Athelas (TLR) x2
Protector of Lórien x2
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 13 (10/3)
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will x2
Dwarven Tomb
Hasty Stroke x2
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Radagast's Cunning
Secret Paths x2

Side quests: 1
Gather Information (TLR)

Solo sideboard:
swap one Daughter of the Nimrodel for Resourceful (TWitW)
swap Gather Information (TLR) for Will of the West


And my partner's Tactics deck:

Team Boromir

51 cards: 49 tactics, 2 neutral; 3 heroes, 19 allies, 18 events, 11 attachments

Boromir (TDM)

Allies: 19 (17/2)

Landroval (AJtR)
Radagast (AJtR)
Descendant of Thorondor (THoEM)
Eagles of the Misty Mountains x3 (RtM)
Bofur (OHaUH)
Gondorian Spearman x2
Winged Guardian x3 (THfG)
Vassal of the Windlord x3 (TDM)
Dúnedain Hunter (TLR)
Gandalf (Core) x2

Events: 18

Swift Strike
Thicket of Spears
To the Eyrie (AJtR)
Blade Mastery x2
Feint x2
Quick Strike
Tireless Hunters (TLR)
Goblin-Cleaver x2 (OHaUH)
The Eagles are Coming! x3 (THfG)
Foe-Hammer x3 (OHaUH)
Meneldor's Flight (THoEM)

Attachments: 11

Citadel Plate
Support of the Eagles x2 (RtM)
Dwarven Axe x2
Secret Vigil x2 (TLR)
Blade of Gondolin x2
Horn of Gondor
Born Aloft (CatC)

No comments: