The two most recent releases for LotR LCG: Voice of Isengard and the Morgul Vale, have each seen the inclusion of some new Mount attachments that allow players to ready their heroes. This seemed then, like a good moment to consider the state of action advantage in the game.
The benefits of action advantage are obvious – with heroes who have to exhaust in order to quest, attack, defend, or trigger abilities, players are forced to choose one of these duties per character round. As heroes often have higher stats than allies, this can leave various points of stats unused each round. Cards which allow you to re-use a hero can give you extra willpower for the quest, prevent death from undefended attacks, or allow you to attack back and finish an enemy off.
There are two main types of hero-readying ability, built-in, and drawn from decks. Heroes with built-in readying effects are Aragorn (core set) Imrahil, Boromir (Dead Marshes), Elladan and Elrohir, and Sam Gamgee. Brand Son of Bain, and Merry also have the ability to ready others. These have the advantage that they can be used from round 1, and do not require drawing of another card. However, they all have a cost: resources for Aragorn and the sons of Elrond, threat for Boromir, and a character leaving play for Imrahil. Sam is less of a penalty in that you only need to engage an enemy with a higher engagement cost than your threat, but it’s still probably a good idea to have a plan for dealing with the enemy before you engage it. Most of these costs can be mitigated with the right build, but should not be ignored It’s also worth noting that only Boromir gives you completely flexibility on when you trigger the action. The other obvious drawback of these heroes, is that they tend not to have other abilities that you can take advantage of, such as stat boosts, threat lowering, card draw and so forth.
The second type of readying abilities are those drawn from players’ decks. These can be sub-divided into effects from allies, events and attachments.
The only allies currently able to ready a hero are the Westfold Horse-Breaker, the Erebor Record Keeper, and Eomund. The westfold horse-breaker must be discarded to use his ability although you can choose any hero to receive the refresh (aside from Beorn), Eomund’s triggers automatically when he leaves play, affecting all Rohan characters, and the Record-keeper targets any Dwarf, requiring him to exhaust and pay a Lore resource. Again, in the right moments, these can be very powerful – you can send a whole army of Rohirrim to the quest, keeping only Eomund back to defend, knowing that an attack of 4+ will bring everyone back. However, an ability based around a character leaving play is essentially single-use: you may be fortunate enough to draw multiple copies, or revive them using stand-and-fight, but each time you will be paying out the resources for them.
Events tell a similar story. Common cause, Grim resolve, Renewed Friendship, Lure of Moria and Behind Strong Walls all allow you to ready a hero, but there are conditions. Grim resolve is formidably powerful, especially in multi-player, but costs 5 resources. Lure of Moria is cheaper, but only affects Dwarves. Common Cause allows you to swap the action of one hero for another, which can be handy if you have a defender, but really need an attacker, but the net gain is likely to be fairly small. Renewed Friendship is of very limited use in this situation (how many heroes are exhausted during the planning phase), and whilst Behind Strong Walls is fantastic at what it does, it only affects defending Gondor characters. Again, being events, all of these go straight to the discard pile when played, and without significant skulduggery, you are unlikely to get more than 3 uses per game.
In order to reliably make use of action advantage, you need something repeatable and, aside from the Erebor Record Keeper, or the heroes mentioned above, the way to get that is through attachments. The two Mount cards which I mentioned at the beginning of this article are the most recent examples of this. Other notable options are Light of Valinor, Cram, Miruvor, Fast Hitch, Spare Hood and Cloak, Ever My Heart Rises, and Unexpected Courage.
Of these, Cram needs to be discarded, placing it on a similar level to events, Ever my Heart Rises only works for dwarves in mountains, and Spare Hood and Cloak requires you to exhaust another hero, before switching over. To my mind that reduces them to the status of niche cards, so I’m going to concentrate on the remainder.
Light of Valinor, Miruvor, Steed of the Mark and Unexpected Courage are all Spirit cards, Rohan Warhorse is a Tactics attachment, and Fast Hitch is a lore Card. Light of Valinor is a staple for elf decks, particularly those using the spirit version of Glorfindel , as it allows him to quest without exhausting, meaning that his forced threat gain does not trigger. It is unique, and only playable on a Noldor or Silvan, so you can’t have multiple copies in play, and it won’t do any good for dwarves or men.
Miruvor is a bit of an odd card, in that it can be used for various different activities. However, if you intend to use it for repeated re-readying, then you will have to return it to the top of your deck each round, using a resource, and choking your card draw. It may have use as a card, but I don’t feel it really works as a reliable, repeatable way of re-readying a hero – the cost of doing this is just too high.
Fast Hitch can only be played on Hobbits. In a hobbit deck, it’s brilliant – for a one-off payment of 1 resource, you can use your character twice per round. However, it’s useless outside of a Hobbit-y environment, and in most multi-player games, you won’t be able to help your fellow players out with it.
Moving on to the last three cards, we have Steed of the Mark, Rohan Warhorse, and Unexpected Courage. Both the horses cost a single resource each, whereas Unexpected Courage costs 2, and can be fetched from your deck using the westfold horse-trainer. However, that’s about where the advantages seem to end. The warhorse can only attach to a Tactics or Rohan hero, whereas the Steed of the Mark can only be used by a Gondor or Rohan hero (no such restriction applies to Unexpected Courage). Steed of the Mark allows a character to pay a resource in order to ready immediately after committing to the quest (I.e. you need to make your decision before cards are revealed in staging). It can protect you from “damage exhausted characters” effects, but it doesn’t allow you to assess which enemies you need to deal with before you spend your money. The warhorse requires you to kill an enemy in order to re-ready. It is also restricted, which is a major issue for Tactics heroes, who might otherwise be kitted out with spears, blades or axes. Again, none of these concerns apply to Unexpected Courage. You can trigger it during any action window, and it does not count towards any of the various attachment limits you might face.
At the end of all this, the options for reliably, repeatedly re-readying a hero, are still relatively limited. If you are a Hobbit, you can use Fast-Hitch. If you’re Glorfindel, use Light of Valinor. If you’re a mono-tactics deck, not expecting to run into support from other spheres, then you can use the Warhorse. Lore-Dwarves may wish to consider a record-keeper. For almost every other occasion though, Unexpected Courage still seems to be the way to go – as a 1x card in the core set, it can be tricky to get hold of, but for anyone running spirit with the piece of cardboard in their collection, there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for anyone running Spirit not to have 3 copies in their deck.
It seems a little odd, this far into the game that a core-set card should still be this powerful, without real decisions to make regarding inclusion. For Steed of the Mark, even the 1-cost saving disappears as soon as you use it for the first time – if it conveyed a willpower bonus, then it would be a trade-off worth considering. Likewise the Warhorse, if it gave an attack boost or an overspill of the damage dealt might be a good option. As it is, I’d much rather use multi-sphere or a pair of Rohan decks (1 spirit, 1 tactics) to ensure access to Unexpected Courage.
Just in case people think I’m over-stating things, let’s consider an example. Legolas has two Rivendell blades and Unexpected Courage on him. I play Hands Upon the Bow to kill a 4 hit-point, 4 defence enemy, before it can engage and attack, and place 2 progress upon the Gladden fields, to which I’ve just travelled. I then ready him, defend an attack with Beregond, and use Legolas to kill another enemy, again hitting for what is effectively 8. I place another progress token on the Gladden fields, exploring it before we have to take the threat increase. To use a Rohan Warhorse, I would have had to sacrifice a Rivendell Blade, whereas a Steed of the Mark would have only allowed him to quest and fight, not attack twice. For Steed of the Mark I would also have needed “Nor am I a stranger” to give him the Rohan trait.
The question, perhaps, is whether anything should be done about this? Two obvious options leap to mind. Either placing some kind of restraint on Unexpected Courage, or producing more powerful cards for the future. Both of these have issues. If Unexpected Courage had cost 3 when the game first came out, it would have moved into the territory of cards like Grim Resolve or We Do Not Sleep – undeniably powerful, but with a hefty cost to match. Likewise, they could have printed a “limit 1 per deck” as has been suggested elsewhere. If it were changed now, it could have a dramatic impact on the whole game, and to be honest, I’m never a massive fan of errata (aside from fixing something obvious like a “reponse”) and certainly don’t plan on re-buying the errata-ed packs to get up-to-date cards.
On the flip side, if player cards get massively powerful, then quests will inevitably become harder too, to the point where picking up this game becomes impossible for anyone who hasn’t been in it from the start.