Aug 8, 2016

LotR LCG: Rohan adventures, aka the Dúnhere deck

Since we got the Voice of Isengard deluxe expansion, it was high time I put together a Rohan deck. The obvious starting point is the Rohan hero I used in my first deck ever:


Still arguably the best questing hero in the game, Éowyn has been a mainstay of my Amazons deck. She was one reason I liked the Spirit starter deck so much; Dúnhere was the other.


Unfortunately, an attack of 3 wasn't great when he could only really attack on his own. Now, though, I could get The Morgul Vale, the last adventure pack in the Against the Shadow cycle, to get him Spear of the Mark, which boosts a Rohan character's Attack by 1, or 2 when attacking into the staging area. A tailor-made attachment for Dúnhere if ever there was one. The other obvious choice is Dagger of Westernesse, but Spear of the Mark is more thematically appropriate. For his other Restricted attachment, I'll be hoping to get him a Rohan Warhorse.

So to make the deck work, we need a Tactics hero to pay for Dúnhere's spear and horse, not to mention Unseen Strike. Since Dúnhere's going to be busy attacking and Éowyn is in charge of questing, ideally we'd need a hero defender, especially since there aren't going to be too many powerful defenders in the deck. I did briefly consider Beregond, since a Gondor hero would hardly be out of place in a Rohan deck, but I chose to stay true to the theme of the deck, and went for Éomer.


With a defense of 2, relying on Éomer to defend would be risky, so it looks like we're going with a questing hero and two attacking heroes. The Dunland Trap adventure pack gets us his trusty steed Firefoot, who boosts his attack to 5. Westfold Horse-breeder will be on hand to fetch mounts for our heroes, and chump block or Ride to Ruin to activate Éomer's attack boost.

**

My overall theme for this deck is obviously Rohan, so I'll want to include a whole bunch of Rohan allies, starting with the ones I was using in my first Amazon deck: Elfhelm, Escort from Edoras and West Road Traveller. With so many Rohan characters in play, Éomund also seems to be an obvious choice, and Voice of Isengard gives us the afore-mentioned Westfold Horse-breeder and Westfold Outrider.


The glaring weakness of this deck is defense. A thematically appropriate solution would be Erkenbrand and some Wardens of Helm's Deep, but given that I need Tactics for Dúnhere's attachments, that would mean tri-sphere, and I'd rather have some of the slightly more expensive Spirit cards. So I stretched theme a bit and included three copies of Defender of Rammas. If we imagine that this deck represents part of the army of Rohan heading into the battle of the Pelennor, it's hardly unlikely that they might have been joined by some of the Gondorian troops guarding the Rammas.

Having assembled some allies, a couple of attachments and events immediately suggest themselves. With a Rohan theme, how can I not include Astonishing Speed? With Éomer and Éomund present, Ride to Ruin also needs to make an appearance.


In a pinch, this deck could, for instance, quest with absolutely everybody and then play Ride to Ruin to discard Éomund, thus readying everyone for combat and also giving Éomer a +2 attack bonus.


Apart from the now-obligatory side quests, the focus of this deck is on maximizing Dúnhere's ability. To this end, I'll include Spear of the Mark, Rohan Warhorse, Quick Strike and Unseen Strike, all basically for his use. In general, I'm going to be hoping to kill enemies in the staging area, which should offset our lack of defense. The Galadhrim's Greeting should help keep my threat low so as few enemies as possible will engage us. Finally, three Ancient Mathoms will provide some much-needed card draw.

**

Here's the first version:

50 cards; 25 Spirit, 23 Tactics, 5 neutral; 22 allies, 13 attachments, 12 events, 3 side quests. Starting threat 27.

Éowyn
Dúnhere
Éomer (VoI)

Allies: 22 (13/6/3)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Éomund (CatC) x2
Escort from Edoras (AJtR) x3
West Road Traveller (RtM) x3
Westfold Horse-breeder (VoI) x3
Defender of Rammas (HoN) x3
Westfold Outrider (VoI) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2
Gandalf (OHaUH)

Attachments: 13 (3/9/1)
Ancient Mathom (AJtR) x3
Firefoot (TDT) x2
Spear of the Mark (TMV) x3
Rohan Warhorse (VoI)
Secret Vigil (TLR) x3
Song of Battle

Events: 12 (6/6)
Astonishing Speed (RtM) x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
Ride to Ruin (THoEM) x2
Quick Strike x3
Unseen Strike (TRG) x3

Side quests: 3
Double Back (TWoE)
Delay the Enemy (AtE)
Gather Information (TLR)

**

With the deck built, it's time to test it. We took a couple of runs at Passage through Mirkwood together with the Tactics deck, and both times, the best argument in favor of Dúnhere in the core set showed up: Hummerhorns.


Even though I included Éowyn and a bunch of Spirit allies, Passage through Mirkwood was already enough to highlight that questing isn't exactly a strength of this deck combo. The combination of Dúnhere and Quick Strike was handy in knocking out enemies in the quest phase, and when Ungoliant's Spawn showed up, Éomer and Legolas dealt with it in one go.

After Mirkwood, the next obvious test was A Journey Down/Along the Anduin. We dealt with the Hill Troll (actually both Hill Trolls) snappily enough, and Dúnhere was worth his weight in gold in the second quest stage. Sadly, our questing deficiencies and a couple of Necromancer's Reaches ended our journey there. Still, though, I was liking the combat output of the deck, so to speak, so our next stop was The Seventh Level to really try it out.


With over half the encounter deck made up of enemies, from Goblin Scouts to Cave-trolls, you can hardly ask for a better quest to test your deck in combat. Why this is the only quest in the whole damn game to have a difficulty level of 3 is one of the enduring mysteries of the world.

If one foundational weakness of this deck was questing, the more serious one is defence. Until I got a Defender of Rammas into play, I was stuck either chump blocking or using Éomer to defend, which is kind of a waste of his abilities. Once I got him Firefoot, I did get to feel quite good for myself when I chump blocked an enemy with a Westfold Horse-breeder to activate Éomer's ability, and then play Quick Strike to wipe out everyone engaged with me before they even get to attack. The son of Éomund is a force of nature. A kingdom for Dúnedain Cache on him in multiplayer! Meanwhile, Éowyn kept the questing going, and Dúnhere came in surprisingly handy with the plethora of shadow cards adding enemies to the staging area in the combat phase.

We were doing great until the shadow effect on the generally awful Undisturbed Bones forced me to discard my Defender of Rammas, turning the Goblin Swordsman's attack into a strength five undefended attack. Frankly, it went pretty rapidly downhill from there, and we eventually succumbed to the endless goblin hordes.

**

I also tried the deck solo. Passage Through Mirkwood was a breeze, and I'm delighted to report that I actually beat A Journey Down the Anduin! I will admit it took several attempts. On most of them, it wasn't actually the Hill Troll that sunk me. I basically had two strategies for him: either Gandalf would defend him, or if I could get Dúnhere properly equipped, maybe I could get some shots in while he was still in the staging area. I thought I might get a shot at the latter when I drew a Spear of the Mark and two Galadhrim's Greetings, but as luck would have it, the encounter card I revealed in setup was Pursued by Shadow, meaning my threat was high enough that the Hill Troll engaged us on the first turn.

My first attempt ended in pretty terrible location lock, but other than that, what I mostly struggled with was either questing when my questing allies didn't show up, or defending a bigger bunch of enemies, especially if my combat allies didn't show up. Generally we managed to handle the troll all right, but several times my progress embarassingly stalled in the first stage. On something like my fifth shot, everything finally kind of came together. I got Gandalf in to quest and defend the Hill Troll, whom Éomer and Dúnhere then finished off. I even got to use West Road Traveller's ability to swap out an East Bight for a Necromancer's Pass, and we went into the second stage with an empty staging area.


Dúnhere again shone in the second stage. I mostly didn't even have to bother defending anything, and the normally infuriating Wargs were free to stay in the staging area as far as I was concerned. On what looked like a likely last round, we were all set for the final showdown. I dropped in Gandalf to lower my threat just in case. He, Éowyn and Éomund quested, and Elfhelm and my Defenders of Rammas were ready to handle the defending. So obviously the first card is Evil Storm, which kills Éomund and wipes out the Defenders. Next we draw Eastern Crows, which surges into Dol Guldur Orcs. I'm lucky Gandalf is there to take the damage, and his and Éowyn's combined questing is enough to pass the second stage. The third stage then adds Banks of the Anduin and a Goblin Sniper to the staging area, so we have our work cut out for us. Everyone except the sniper engages us.

Luckily Éomund's death readied Éowyn, who defends the Crows, and Elfhelm stops the Dol Guldur Orcs. Éomer and Firefoot wipe out both of the engaged enemies, and in a fitting finale for the deck, Dúnhere charges into the staging area and destroys the Goblin Sniper. Victory!

**

So, what have I learned? First, that Dúnhere can definitely make a useful contribution. Second, that Éomer is pretty darn awesome. Card draw and defense are the most obvious drawbacks, which Ancient Mathom and Defender of Rammas respectively go some distance toward redressing. Still, though, beating A Journey Down/Along the Anduin made me feel really good about this deck! It's got potential.

As a random thought, something that could combine really well with Dúnhere would be traps; now that we have the Land of Shadow expansion, I have to try putting together an "Auxiliaries of Gondor" deck with Dúnhere, Beregond and Damrod. The same expansion included Gamling the Old, who I clearly have to fit into this deck somehow. I could actually just drop a couple of side quests; the amount of trouble I've had with questing suggests that I'm hardly going to be able to make use of them on my own.

In the meantime, though, I stole Éowyn and the West Road Travelers for a new attempt at an Amazon deck, and the Gondor deck has an admittedly strong claim to those Defenders of Rammas. With what's left, I built an alternate version with Santa Théoden, which won over at least one new player with Dúnhere. Háma was worth his weight in gold as a defender here, which strongly suggested that as soon as we got our hands on Temple of the Deceived, I should add Déorwine to the mix.


51 cards; 28 allies, 10 attachments, 12 events, 1 side quest.

Théoden (TToS)
Dúnhere
Éomer (VoI)

Allies: 26 (17/7/2)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Éomund (CatC) x2
Gamling (TLoS) x2
Háma (TToS) x2
Rider of the Mark (RtR) x3
Escort from Edoras (AJtR) x3
Westfold Horse-breeder (VoI) x3
Déorwine (TotD) x2
Grimbold (TFotW) x2
Guthlaf (TBoG) x2
Westfold Outrider (VoI) x3
Gandalf (Core) x2

Attachments: 10 (9/1)
Firefoot (TDT) x2
Rohan Warhorse (VoI)
Secret Vigil (TLR) x3
Spear of the Mark (TMV) x3
Song of Battle (TDM)

Events: 12 (6/6)
Astonishing Speed (RtM) x2
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
Ride to Ruin (THoEM) x2
Quick Strike x3
Unseen Strike (TRG) x3

Side quests: 1
Double Back (EfMG)

**

Using only the cards left over from our other decks, it was possible to create a deck that did decently solo and more or less pulled its weight in multiplayer. If we really bent our card pool to the task, I'm pretty sure we could do even better. Having said that, these Dúnhere decks have been great fun to play, and the whole Rohan archetype just keeps on delivering.

Aug 1, 2016

Let's Read Tolkien 23: A Short Cut to Mushrooms

In the morning Frodo woke refreshed.

When Frodo wakes up, the elves are gone. As the hobbits set up breakfast, Pippin is bouncing around and singing, all thoughts of Black Riders gone from his mind. This prompts some soul-searching from Frodo on the morality of taking his young friends with him, and when Pippin bounces off for some water, he has a little chat with Sam.

The Sam we were introduced to in the second chapter was a figure of rustic comedy, with his lor-bless-you-sir, there-ain't-no-eaves-at-Bag-End lines, alternating between cringing fear of Gandalf, childish excitement at elves and open weeping at the prospect of leaving. In the third chapter, he curls up to sleep at his master's feet while Frodo has A Serious Conversation with a high-elf, effectively appearing as an occasionally talking dog. Now, though, when Frodo somewhat patronizingly asks him what he thinks of elves, it's Sam who gives a serious, adult answer, and also articulates his reasons for wanting to go with Frodo in a way that Frodo himself doesn't quite understand. So far, then, the treatment of Sam has been twofold: he's been treated as a child, if not a pet, and now suddenly as an adult. Frodo realizes this sudden change in Sam, even looking for a physical manifestation of it. The reader is left wondering if the actual change is in Frodo; Sam is no longer his clearly lower-class gardener, but a traveling companion and confidant. If you want to read this trajectory subversively, Sam's truckling in front of Frodo and Gandalf was a performance that tells us a lot about the class society that is the Shire, and nothing at all about Sam himself, except that he knows how to play the part expected of him. I'm inclined to think that Tolkien's treatment of Sam reflects the typically ambivalent attitude of a right-wing intellectual to the lower classes; on the one hand they're idealized as steadfast and reliable salt-of-the-earth types, on the other hand infantilized and patronized as children in adult bodies. Throughout the story, Sam vacillates between the two; this is our first encounter with, dare I say it, serious Sam.

It's a hot day, with rain-threatening clouds on the horizon. After breakfast, Frodo and Pippin debate their route. As evidenced by his previous bounciness, Pippin has firmly put the terror of the Black Riders behind him, and is now arguing that they should continue on the road, rather than cut cross-country as Frodo wants to do. Frodo's argument that the direct way is in fact considerably shorter eventually wins the day, and Pippin is forced to admit he'd been planning on getting to the Golden Perch inn and its famous ale by nightfall. Much to his and Sam's regret, they set off into the bush.

The three hobbits descend a steep bank into a thicket, where they soon find a stream blocking their path. As they're considering crossing it, Sam looks back, and spots a black cloaked figure and a horse atop the same bank. The hobbits quickly hide, and now there's no alternative but to keep going. They beat their way through the bush and find a place to ford the stream. Soon enough, the rain starts. After midday, they stop for lunch, and find the elves had filled their water-bottles with some kind of elven mead, which apparently immediately goes to the hobbits' heads, because they start up a drinking-song. As they're starting up the second verse, the song is cut short by a blood-chilling wail on the wind. It freezes the hobbits right in their tracks, and is soon answered by another one further away. Eventually Pippin tries to make light of it, but Frodo maintains he heard words in the cry, but that no hobbit could have produced it. The Black Riders obviously spring to mind, and soon enough, the hobbits get underway again.

In the afternoon, they come out of the woods into the open lands by the Brandywine. Initially this makes Frodo and company quite nervous, but as they trek through the orderly Shire countryside, the memory of the Black Riders seems to fall behind. Eventually they come to a gate, which Pippin recognizes as an entrance to Farmer Maggot's lands. This fairly terrifies Frodo, who used to steal mushrooms from Maggot when he was young, but Pippin persuades him to go and meet Maggot, as he'll be good to know now that Frodo is coming to live in Buckland again.

Maggot's ferocious dogs intercept the hobbits, but don't hurt them, and Maggot, recognizing Pippin, meets the trio and invites them in. He reacts sharply to the name Baggins, and not just because he remembers Frodo's mushroom-related escapades. With the slow relish of a person for whom unexpected events are rare, he takes his time telling his guests about a creepy visitor he had who spooked his dogs, asked for Baggins and offered gold. Maggot sent him packing, and offers Frodo his guess that this all has something to do with "those strange doings of Mr. Bilbo's". The provincial Sam mistrusts Maggot because he isn't from Hobbiton, and Maggot tells Frodo that no doubt all this trouble is caused by his living among queer and unhobbitlike folk in Hobbiton. Slightly incomfortable with the farmer's guesses, Frodo tries to make his excuses and leave, but Maggot offers to drive them to the Brandywine ferry himself if they'll stay for dinner; an invitation that Frodo graciously accepts.

After a hearty dinner, they set off in Maggot's cart. Night is falling and a mist is rising from the river, and the pony-cart makes its slow way toward the ferry. Just as they're getting there, they hear the sound of hooves on the road ahead. Maggot parks the cart and goes forward to confront the rider, who turns out to be Merry, out looking for Frodo. Maggot leaves Frodo and company there, handing them a basket from Mrs. Maggot as he goes. It contains a parting joke: mushrooms.

**

This is among the shortest chapters in the whole book, clocking in at just about ten pages. It continues the theme of Frodo's alienation from the Shire, from his gloomy musing on the ethics of taking his friends along to his silence at Farmer Maggot's. The whole encounter with Maggot underlines how Frodo is leaving his old world behind: Pippin's casual reference to Frodo getting to know Maggot is a reminder that he's operating under false pretenses, and even if the farmer's guesses are called shrewd, in the end he still has no idea of what's at stake. Even if Maggot correctly guesses that the trouble involves Bilbo's treasure, he still thinks of it in terms of gold and jewels, and his simple solution of living in Buckland among sensible people is hopelessly naïve. To him, the Shire is still the world, and problems happen because other people won't be reasonable and hobbitlike; it's a simple but effective commentary on hobbit parochialism that Maggot repeats essentially the exactly same doubts about the proper-hobbitness of Hobbiton people that they voiced about Buckland. Incredibly, his wife gets a line in, meaning we're already up to two talking female characters.

Another major theme is the weight of Frodo's task. One of the often-repeated accusations against Tolkien is that he writes carefree Boys' Own adventures, which is again difficult to understand when actually reading the text. Even the Hobbit at times subverted the notion of "adventure" as a rollicking good time, but the Lord of the Rings sets up Frodo's mission to Mount Doom as an explicit antithesis, an adventure not to win treasure but to destroy it, driven not by any real hope in success but rather a necessity to flee from the Enemy. If the second chapter effectively set up the story, the next two have involved confronting peril, in the form of the Black Riders, and running away from it. Here, Frodo and company go from the safety of the elven feast to a harrowing cross-country escape from Ringwraiths. They end up at Farmer Maggot's place, a temporary haven in some sense, but even if we haven't yet been told what the Black Riders are, exactly, it's hard to think that Maggot and his dogs could possibly defend Frodo and the Ring from them. So as formidable as Maggot may have appeared to a young mushroom-stealing Frodo, even this haven of safety is an illusion. This journey really is "a flight from danger into danger", as Frodo puts it in the second chapter.

I continue to enjoy Tolkien's travel prose, and the Black Riders are presented very effectively. We don't really know anything about them yet, but I remember reading this stuff when I was younger and finding them very believably frightening. In the previous chapter, they were more sedate figures, sitting on trotting horses and sniffing around; now they're on the hunt, communicating with unearthly screams. The tension of a desperate escape is built very well, especially in contrast to the rustic environment it happens in. Even the tense encounter at the ferry that turns out to be Merry is played out quite well, and doesn't feel cheap the second time around.

Next time, baths and singing.