I currently have a few large projects on the boil, (some of them Lord of the Rings-y, others more focused on just surviving life in general) but they’re all going to take me a while to actually unleash. In the meantime, I thought this might make a good moment to consider the current stock of heroes, both in terms of how they work for gameplay, and how they reflect the character Tolkien created. I’m going to break this down into 4 articles, 1 per sphere. This first instalment is a bit late, but I’ll try to get the others out at the standard once per fortnight pace, by the end of which I should have something a bit different ready to go.
Core-set Aragorn was a powerful hero from the word go, and still remains popular with many players of the game. One of the chief protagonists of the War of the Ring, his card is suitably powerful, with at least 2 for all his stats, and 5 hit-points. As a result his starting threat is high, but Sauron’s attention is something Aragorn has come to expect: as he tells Sauron through the Palantir “long have you hunted me.”
This version of Aragorn has great utility – he has good willpower for questing, and can pay a resource to re-ready for combat. In a sphere that can easily generate additional resources, this is a pretty good deal, and when you start boosting his stats, for example with cards like Celebrian’s stone, it becomes an even better deal.
For some heroes, rounded stats can be a disadvantage, as they end up going to waste, but Aragorn generally manages to make good use of his. From core set days he had one attachment designed specifically for him, and has gained more as he went along, allowing him plenty of options for sphere-fixing. This card seems an ideal reflection of Aragorn, a great captain of men, hardy roamer of the wilds, and skilled warrior.
Back in the days of the Core Set, Theodred was Aragorn’s almost-constant-companion. Their abilities meshed perfectly as Theodred provided the resource needed for Aragorn to re-ready, allowing him to spend his normal resources on actually getting cards into play. Aside from combining with Aragorn, Theodred can also distribute cash around the table, helping other players with their resource issues.
In more recent times, Theodred has fallen out of favour with many, as there are simply better options out there for Leadership heroes – for one thing, his meagre stats, most notably only a single point of willpower, make him a poor choice for a hero who needs to quest every turn in order to use his power – likewise 2 attack, or a single point of defence with 4 hit points make his combat utility fairly limited as well. Rohan synergy for Leadership is decidedly lacking – there’s only really the Snowborn Scout, and most of the things which could boost his questing or attack come in other spheres (Spirit and Tactics respectively). Essentially, the main reason to have Theodred was as a way to ensure you had 2 Aragorn’s and a few extra leadership resources.
In terms of how Theodred’s card fits Tolkien’s character, we don’t have a great deal to go on. We know that he was Theoden’s son and that he died shortly before the War of the Ring, but that’s about it – the few remaining details we have, such as his age and the manner of his death were changed in the films from the books (Jackson made him younger, and had him die of wounds, due to the interference of Grima, rather than being killed outright at the first battle of the fords of the Isen.) On this basis, it doesn’t seem that Theodred can be accused of being massively unfaithful to his book character, although it does seem a shame that he hails from a different sphere to his father and his cousin, who were apparently his closest friends in life. [HINT, HINT- FANTASY FLIGHT, RELEASE A LEADERSHIP VERSION OF THEODEN!]
Gloin was the last of the core-set leadership heroes, a dwarf who generated money every time he took damage. Back in the Dwarrowdelf cycle, I used to run a deck which relied on getting Self-preservation on Gloin, and letting him be bashed for as much damage as possible, to churn out vast amounts of cash. Unfortunately, this was trickier in practice than it might seem – even ignoring the difficulty of getting a 3-cost, out-of-sphere attachment onto him, the combo just had too many working parts to be effective – with only 1 defence and 4 hit-points, he was too fragile to be tanking attacks from trolls, and could easily be brushed aside even by Wargs or Orcs with a nasty shadow-card, so needed something like ring-mail (tactics) to improve his defending capacity, or other out-of-sphere protection, such as citadel plate, or a song wisdom followed by a burning brand.
When the combination finally came together, you had a powerful resource engine… …in the sphere which was already the best at generating resources. For most people, it just wasn’t worth the effort. When you add to the picture the Ally version of Gloin, who has solid stats, far more easily achieved resource acceleration, and who plays in nicely to the powerful “5 dwarves or more” deck, it’s easy to see why he doesn’t get much table time.
Thematically, it’s slightly difficult to pin down what the idea behind Gloin was supposed to be – is he sufficiently rich that every time an enemy strikes him, money comes spilling out of his pockets? Or is he a personal injury lawyer. The first idea does fit nicely with Peter Jackson’s depiction of him as a wealthy miser, trying to get out of paying his share of the boat fee to Bard, but even it weren’t a film-world invention by Jackson, this scene only came out several years AFTER the card was released.
The first leadership hero after the core set was Imrahil. Although he’s not quite as strong all-round as Aragorn, he still has fairly solid stats, and his built-in readying ability allows you to get double use out of him reasonably often. This ability gets particularly powerful if you build for it, and only gets stronger the more players there are in the game.
As a Gondor character he can take advantage of the various Gondor-boosting cards out there, but fittingly for a man of elven heritage, and the father-in-law of the King of Rohan, he works perfectly with the allies-leaving-play archetypes of Rohan and Silvan decks.
Despite being a fairly major figure in Return of the King, Prince Imrahil doesn’t feature in any of the films, making him a slightly unfamiliar figure for many players of the game. He does, technically, hail from the same place as the Outlanders, but came along sufficiently long before that trait was conceived to avoid being given that trait – it is a bit of a shame that he doesn’t have any synergy with his Knights of the Swan, but on the whole, not being part of the Outlands can only really be a good thing.
Dain was the last hero of the Mirkwood cycle, immediately before Khazad-Dum, and the first real clue that dwarves were going to be something big. His passive ability is one of the most powerful in the game, giving all dwarves in play a boost to attack and willpower whilst he is ready.
This level of power hasn’t really been repeated in the game since Dain, and there’s very little question that he’s an effective hero, provided there are a decent number of dwarves in play. His 3 defence is very solid (at the time it was the equal largest in the game) which at least brings in an element of decision during the combat phase for Dain’s controller – unlike the quest phase, where he will mostly be limited to standing around looking inspiring.
In the Hobbit, Dain appears at the end leading armies of dwarves from the Iron Hills, and is about to start waging war upon the elves and the men of Laketown when the goblins arrive and the Battle of Five Armies breaks out instead. Obviously, the arrival of Dain’s folk is a great morale-booster for Thorin and Company holed-up in the lonely Mountain, but you’d have to imagine that had more to do with the vast army of dwarves that he brought with him than it did with his own personal charisma.
After the events of the Hobbit, Dain reigns as the King Beneath the Mountain, up until the time of the War of the Ring, where he and everyone’s favourite LotR pin-up Brand son of Bain fight against an army of orcs and goblins at the doors of Erebor. The stated time-period of the LotR Card Game is during this reign, so perhaps the ability is more reflective of the King Under the Mountain stage of Dain’s life.
One of the sons of Elrond, who virtually nobody can tell apart (Aragorn is about the only character who is described as being able to distinguish them, although you’d have to imagine Elrond and Arwen could have a good go)- I even have to check which one’s which when playing (I just remember them as the attacking one and the defending one). Aside from Bilbo, this pair were the first characters whose Threat Cost wasn’t equal to the sum of their stats. By himself, Elrohir has a threat cost of ten and stats totalling 9. However, when his brother is in play, his stats go up to eleven, specifically his defence rising from 1 to 3. This is very important as it meshes nicely with his ability which allows him to defend, then pay a resource to re-ready. With enough cash, he can defend infinitely.
The fact that Elrohir synergises with his brother, producing a whole which is better than the sum of his parts makes good thematic sense, and it would be strange, if not downright foolish to ever run one without the other. They also have good rounded stats, with 2 willpower, and 2 attack for Elrohir 2 defence for Elladan. That said, Elrohir is the less useful of the two in my mind- 3 defence is good, but it’s hardly impregnable, and without in-sphere access to shadow cancellation or healing, there are only so many times you’ll get good use out of him. By contrast, his brother can essentially attack as many times as he has enemies and resources (Elladan + Rivendell blade + Orcrist is a particularly fun combination), as your ability to attack doesn’t diminish in the way that a pool of hit-points does. In Elrohir’s favour, being in leadership he is more likely to be able to generate the resources required to make multiple defences, if you can bolster him sufficiently to survive the attacks.
The leadership version of Boromir was the second one we had seen in the game. The first emphasised the valiant yet foolhardy warrior, able to wreak havoc upon his enemies by sacrificing stealth and his own life. This was an earlier iteration, the great leader of men seen in the retaking of Osgiliath. He has the same broad, solid stats as before- light on willpower, but powerful in attack, and provided he has a resource in his pool, he gives all Gondor allies an extra attack point. This works well with the various Gondor-themed cards that can generate extra cash, and I like the touch that only allies receive this bonus – the likes of Aragorn or Dain know their own worth and aren’t going to be dazzled by Boromir.
This is definitely a solid hero – it goes particularly well with Visionary Leadership, to provide that swarm of cheap Gondor allies with a boost to their willpower as well as their attack. It’s also not unfaithful to Tolkien’s work in any way. That said, personally, I just don’t find it as interesting as playing Tactics Boromir, where you have major choices to make round after round, as you try to decide how far to push your threat for extra attacks.
Unfortunately, Hirluin is impossible to assess in isolation from the Outlands archetype. The deck that builds itself and plays itself. It’s good that he synergises with his compatriots (aside from poor old Imrahil), but generally, the deck isn’t fun for me, and without the Outlanders, Hirluin is basically useless, with 1 for attack, defence and willpower.
The lord of the Galadhrim was the first sign at the start of the current cycle that the Silvan deck was about to really get going. Celeborn offers an across-the-board bonus on stats for Silvan allies, on the round they enter play. Whilst this effect seems to suffer badly from the law of diminishing returns, the growing number of ways to bounce Silvans in and out of play using Tree-People, Feigned Voices and the like mean that you’re likely to get more than just single use out of the bonus – allies like the Naith guide which have an “enters play” effect benefit doubly from this recycling. You need multiple spheres in play to make use of most of these effects, but at this stage in the game, that’s hardly an impossible obstacle.
Although a figure of undoubted significance in the Lord of the Rings, Celeborn’s character is hardly the most developed you’ll see. The fact that he boosts Silvans makes sense, although the lack of Sindarin trait is still irksome, if consistent. 11 threat and fairly rounded stats that include a very solid 3 willpower make him a good choice for elves and thematically he’s far from terrible, without being able to be called brilliant – personally I’d have liked some kind of effect that allowed him to search for Gandalf (if the Hobbit III trailers are anything to go by, his first question to our favourite Istari may well be “what have you been doing with my wife?” )
There could never really be much doubt that Thorin Oakenshield belongs in the leadership sphere. This hero is clearly a leader or dwarves, and he was one of the earlier cards in the “if you control 5 or more dwarves” vein – in this case, providing extra resources. The effect is powerful and, given that you’ll probably need to be running multiple spheres to get the dwarves properly swarming, he helps to smooth your resource issues, as well as being an obvious target for some sphere-fixing like Narvi’s belt. (Ori has always seemed the best partner for me, with the third slot being up for grabs).
Obviously, the vast majority of our unique dwarves are from the Hobbit ortheir families, but the general feel of Thorin still strikes me more as the leader of a small, close-knit band of followers than as the head of a grand army. If anything, I think Thorin and Dain would be more fitting the other way round- Thorin the inspiration, Dain the leader of hordes.
The last dwarf-lord of Moria, much referenced in the Lord of the Rings, but only actually appearing in the Hobbit. The Balin hero is the fourth dwarf in the leadership sphere, and is slightly unusual in this respect, in that he is probably worth considering outside out a primarily dwarven deck, given his ability to cancel shadow effects without the need for lore/spirit.
Balin’s aim between The Hobbit and his death was to re-occupy the Mines of Moria, and restore dwarven light to the darks of the Dwarrowdelf. In this respect, his ability seems fairly thematic, as it places him in the vanguard of the fight against the Shadow, yet does not offer the kind of automatic success that comes with a Hasty Stroke or a Burning Brand.
The faithful companion of Frodo, the most famousest of Hobbits is perhaps an unusual choice for the leadership sphere. Admittedly he will one day break the record for the most re-elections as mayor of the Shire, but those days are some way off in the future.
Sam was released in the Black Riders box, which was the moment when the Hobbit deck suddenly shot into overdrive. He has some obvious support cards, including Bill the Pony (free when Sam’s around) for extra hit-points, and a Hobbit-cloak. The trick to the deck is keeping your threat low, but so long as you can manage that, the Hobbits are a real power-house. Questing for three with a threat of only 8 would be good enough by itself, (and makes him viable in a non-Hobbity deck / combined with higher-threat heroes) but the potential to then block for 4 on the same round takes him to another level. With attachments like the new version of Sting, he can quickly get crazy – although sadly, still no Frying Pan attachment …
Thematically Sam is a little puzzling. His 3 hit-points presumably come from Peter Jackson’s insistence on having Gollum constantly refer to him as “the fat one” – even after a year walking in the wilderness, with little more than a few slices of Lembas bread to keep him going on (in his fight with Gollum in the pass of Cirith Ungol he is described as “stout” but I think that’s as far as it gets). The idea of finding unknown resources of courage and strength when confronted by sudden adversity is nice and hobbit though, so whilst we’re probably seeing some power-creep compared with a figure like Theodred, it doesn’t feel totally out of left-field.
So that’s it for the Leadership Heroes (at least for now) – I’ve deliberately not gone for specific “ratings” as numbers can be a bit arbitrary. I’d be interested to know what other people think of the various Leadership Heroes.