The heroes review continues, and already we’ve made it to Spirit
Eowyn is perhaps the most quintessential Spirit hero there is. Around since the days of the core set, she has a whopping 4 willpower (a number not equalled for any stat until quite a way into the game’s life), a single point of attack, a single point of defence and a rather fragile 3 hit points. Her ability plays further to her strengths, allowing players to discard cards to boost her willpower even further.
In some respects, a review of Eowyn is pretty obvious stuff – she is brilliant at normal willpower questing, and terrible at anything else. She won’t be making a useful contribution to combat, and she certainly won’t be slaying the Witch King any time soon.
Additional mechanics brought into the quests over the years have increased her utility in specific areas – for escape tests, hide tests, or fighting spectral enemies, she is well worth an unexpected courage, and she proves remarkably sturdy when crossing Caradhras. Another advantage of her power is that it allows players running powerful unique attachments a non- wasteful option for getting rid of duplicates they draw later.
Power-wise, although some people give the impression that they feel the game has moved past her, I still like Eowyn for sheer willpower out of the gate, particularly handy in multi-sphere decks that take a while to get going. Thematically, she makes a lot of sense, as someone whose accomplishments on the battlefield came more from sheer determination than from martial prowess, but I still hope that we see a Tactics Version of Eowyn / a Durnhelm sometime some.
If Questing is the first key strength of Spirit, then Cancellation is probably the second (you could argue a case for Threat management, but the only hero who reduces your threat is in lore…) Eleanor is another core set hero, and her ability allows her to cancel the “when revealed” of a treachery card. The advantage of this is that it allows you to dodge some very nasty bullets. The disadvantage is that you have to reveal another card as a replacement, which has the potential to be as bad, or even worse (or the same card again!)
In some quests, Eleanor is great – If you’re playing Shadow and Flame using the Hama-lock, Eleanor’s job is to stand there and wait for counter-spell. She can also ward off sleeping sentries. Generally though, the fact that the card is replaced really dials down the value of this ability.
Aside from her ability, Eleanor’s uses are limited: her stats are decidedly less than stellar – 1 attack, 2 defence, but only 3 hit-points, makes her of little value in combat, and you’re unlikely to quest with her since she would then be exhausted an unable to cancel when-revealed. The introduction of the Gondorian Shield has made her a more viable defender, able to get 4 defence relatively easily, although the small pool of hit-points counts against her.
Theme is a slightly difficult notion for Eleanor, as she is a doubly-fictional character – she originally appeared in Middle Earth Quest, and the fact that the only other Spirit Gondor hero is also an FFG creation doesn’t help. She fits well within her sphere, fulfilling one of the key roles of spirit, but otherwise there is little for be said for her.
The last Spirit hero of the core set was something of a late bloomer in the life of this game. His ability to attack the staging area can be absolutely vital in some niche situations, such as Hummerhorns which will kill any hero bar Beorn the moment they engage. However, the fact that this needed to be a lone attack, combined with the lack of options for getting his attack up above 3 hampered this ability considerably. Most of the Rohan trait synergy available was for willpower and questing boosts, adding to his single point of willpower to make only a mediocre quester. 1 defence and 4 hit points make him an unlikely option for defending either.
In recent times however, Dunhere has received a new lease of life with the arrival of the Dagger of Westernesse and the Spear of the Mark. These make it relatively easy for him to reach 5 or 7 attack. Being in Spirit, Dunhere has access to various threat-lowering effects which you need for the enemy to stay in the staging area (and A Light in the Dark if you really feel the need)
Thematically, Dunhere makes a reasonable amount of sense – it feels like it took Fantasy Flight a while to work out exactly how they were going to approach Rohan, but Dunhere is good at capturing the mobile, horseman feeling of the Rohirrim. As a messenger, it’s logical that he’s not at the power-level of some of the epic moments we know, and he fits nicely into his niche.
Frodo was the first Spirit hero we had after the core set, and the second Hobbit (after Bilbo), which was a fairly logical choice. He is suitably small to represent his hobbit-ness, good at questing, but a bit light in other departments. His ability represents his use of the one ring, allowing him to turn damage into threat. Obviously, this makes a lot of sense thematically, although it is slightly odd that he doesn’t need to find the ring and comes with the power built-in.
In terms of playability, Frodo is still good, although I haven’t got a lot of use out of him recently, probably because the Hobbit decks I built were for Black Riders, where the Saga version of Frodo came in instead. The fact that his limit is once per phase seems a good balance – once per round would probably make him too underpowered, whereas if there was no limit, he would be overpowered, especially with the range of threat reduction available to us now.
Dwalin appeared in Khazad-Dum, the first Deluxe expansion for the game. By the time he appeared, we were already post-Dain, so just by being a dwarf he was often a few points up on his stats. Combat-based threat reduction is a somewhat unusual ability, but he could be quite effective, especially if you loaded him up with a Dwarven Axe or two, and perhaps some action advantage. It is worth noting that, as with an of this type of ability, Dwalin needs to actually kill the enemy himself, not finish him off with damage effects such as the Dwarrowdelf Axe.
The fact that his ability targets specifically on destroying Orcs to lower your threat means that Dwalin is very quest-specific in terms of his utility. In the earlier days of the game when almost every enemy was an orc, his utility was almost universal. However, once you get to Heirs of Numenor and onwards, you often find yourself without an Orc for him to target.
Thematically, there’s a certain amount of logic to his power- if the orc is dead he’s not going to be reporting back any time soon. Threat reduction also fits well into Spirit. Aside from that, there’s not too much to be said about him.
There is probably no card since the core set which has changed the game more than Spirit Glorfindel. Like core set Glorfindel, he has stats befitting an Elf-Lord of old – 3 Willpower, 3 Attack, one defence, but 5 hit-points. The major difference between the first and second versions of Glorfindel is that whereas core-set Glorfindel has a threat cost of 12, Spirit Glorfindel is a mere 5.
Admittedly, this does need to be weighed against the fact that this version of Glorfindel has no ability, and has a detrimental effect- you raise your threat by 1 every time he exhausts to quest. However, even if you never quest with him, a 5-threat character in Spirit with 3 attack is still incredibly strong.
The fact that Glorfindel’s threat is so low means that he can fit into almost any deck – want spirit? don’t want a high threat? Glorfindel is your elf. On top of that, comes the fact that he is a unique Noldor, making him an ideal target for Elrond’s Counsel (free threat reduction / willpower boost), and a legitimate target for Light of Valinor (quest without exhausting, so no need to worry about that forced effect), Rivendell Blade (take down enemy defence), and of course his trusty steed Asfaloth, and the result is incredibly powerful.
There is really no need to even question whether Glorfindel is playable. The question of theme is a far more interesting one. When the core set came out, a lot of people were a bit underwhelmed by Glorfindel version 1 – a character who plays an important role in the books, and gets short shrift from Peter Jackson (his scenes being given to Arwen) deserved something better they felt. After all, Ages (literally) before defeating the Nazgul at the Bruinen, during the fall of Gondolin he killed a Balrog. The Balrog may have killed him in the process, but a little thing like that doesn’t stop Glorfindel. Back he came from the halls of Mandos, to prophesy that the Witch King would not be killed by a man, and then to rescue Frodo. In light of all this, the kind of power-level he has does feel thematic. It also makes sense that having a figure of such calibre in your Fellowship is likely to attract unwanted attention from the enemy – but probably no more than it would if Elrond joined in, an elf who does not suffer this penalty. On balance, whilst the impact of Glorfindel on the game may have been greater than the designers first envisaged, I think that from a flavour perspective he is at least passable.
As a final note on Glorfindel, it’s worth remembering that this version also has the by-now-compulsory Magali Villeneuve art.
Caldara remains an oddity on a number of levels. Firstly, she came bang in the middle of the Against the Shadow cycle, when FFG was really pushing the mono-sphere theme, and secondly she was another of Fantasy Flight’s invented characters.
In terms of her mono-sphere focus, her power is basically dependent upon you running two other Spirit heroes (it could be done with 1 other, but the effect would be very weak). Caldara can be discarded to put into play 1 spirit ally from your discard pile for each other spirit hero you control (these have to be printed Spirit, so no shenanigans with Song of Travel on a Fellowship Hero). In a best-case scenario, this could net you a pair of 4-cost allies- 2 Northern Trackers for example, which is nothing to be sneezed at. However, that assumes that you have managed to get both of these into your discard pile, in less time than it would have taken to save up and pay for them normally.
There is something of a sub-theme in Spirit around discarding cards – Emery (another FFG imagined Spirit character) and Zigil Miner both move cards in this way, and Eowyn’s power also allows a bit of manipulation in this regard. However, this ability really needs to be built for- made the central purpose of the deck.
Stats-wise, 2 willpower is ok, but certainly not stellar in spirit, 1 attack is virtually worthless, and 2 defence / 3 hit-points is very fragile for defending. The “Gondor” trait is useful it provides a chance to boost defence with a Gondorian Shield, or gain willpower bonuses from Visionary Leadership, but generally she is quite uninspiring.
People have built Caldara decks, and posted that they can be very effective, but personally I feel no inclination to put that much work into a deck structured around a character with no real backstory, or ling with the lore, that does something others can already do (Vilya, Elfstone, Very good Tale etc are more accessible ways of mustering allies). She does not have the “Ranger” trait, yet is depicted in a rural/wilderness setting, making it slightly unclear what her role in Gondorian society really is. For me, this falls flat on both theme and playability.
Shortly after Caldara, we received the second of the Against the Shadow cycle’s lacklustre Spirit Heroes, this time Pippin. This version of Pippin has the small pool of stats that you would expect from a Hobbit, combined with an ability that allows you to pay 3 threat to return an enemy to the staging area.
The Hobbit deck which came out with Black Riders relies heavily on keeping your threat low, whilst this version of Pippin raises your threat. The fact that he gets read of an enemy for a round is handy, but if you keep ramping your threat, you’ll soon find every enemy in the quest coming to look for you.
Again, I have seen decks which make use of Pippin – pairing him with heavy threat-reduction effects, and characters like Dunhere who can attack the staging area. However, you have to question whether this is the most effective way of dealing with things- even in a custom-build, triggering this every round is going to be painful.
Thematically, the idea that this fool of a Took raises your threat makes perfect sense. However, his antics with the well seem far more likely to increase the number of enemies you have to deal with, rather than reduce them.
Thus far in the game, we have 7 Hobbit heroes (excluding Saga-only versions), and Pippin definitely comes seventh on my list- he has no synergy with other Hobbits, and as the only one of the Hobbits to have 2 “normal” versions, he suffers from the fact that a Hobbit deck will probably be quite keen to have the Lore version in play.
Continuing the theme in Spirit of in-house creations, Early in the Ringmaker cycle, FFG provided us with Idraen. This time, there was clearly a lot more effort put into (or at least communicated to players about) the character’s background.
She is a Dunedain Ranger, used to roaming the wilds of the North, and has an ability allowing her to ready when a location is explored. Her remarkably high pool of stats for a spirit character makes this action advantage particularly useful, as she is relatively competent in questing or in combat. She also combines well with cards that place direct progress on locations (Strength of Will is a good one, allowing you to travel, and immediately explore that location, handy for locations which have nasty effects whilst active).
Aside from the already notorious Spirit Glorfindel, Idraen was that first Spirit hero with 3 attack, a somewhat controversial decision in some quarters, but one which makes a reason amount of sense when dealing with some used to having to survive in the wilds.
I’ve become increasingly aware of the importance of having location-management in my deck, particularly in a 3 or 4-player game, and Idraen is a good starting point in making the interaction with locations a bit more interesting. The power is thematic – a Ranger, familiar with the wilds, and generally the card feels balanced. The main problem with this character is pronouncing her name. I tend to go for something along the lines of Id-drain, or possibly id-ray-een, but I have heard it pronounced the same as Rocky Balboa’s girlfriend. Given that she’s doubly fictional, I doubt it’s going to cause too many problems.
Nori and Oin were both released around the same time, in the Hobbit Sag boxes and, to be honest, I regularly forget which is which – they are simply “the other two Spirit Dwarves.”
As printed, Nori was actually a fairly powerful hero – every time a dwarf entered play under your control, he lowered your threat by 1. With spirit Bofur, the ally who can be added to the quest for a single spirit resource each round, then returns automatically to your hand, this equated to “pay 1, lower your threat by 1 (limit once per round)” – throw in Horn of Gondor, and the combo becomes free (net).
In light of this, it’s not a great surprise that they quickly errata-ed Nori’s power to only trigger if you play the dwarf from your hand. At that point in time, there were only about 4 Spirit dwarf allies – Bofur (who as mentioned above, you probably don’t want to be playing from hand) the blue half of Fili/Kili (I definitely can’t remember which of those is which), Dwalin (who already exists in hero form) and the Zigil Miner. Obviously, you can run multi-sphere decks, but it does drastically limit you options.
At a recent Fellowship Event, I saw Nori being used to quite good effect (Nori’s controller was the only one not to threat-out during Nightmare hobbit) in a Spirit/Lore deck. Personally, I’ve always tended to go Leadership Lore for my Dwarf swarm, and found Spirit/Tactics to be a poor cousin.
Thematically, it’s not entirely obvious what they were going for here. Obviously he fits into the general “the more dwarves the better” archetype, but I’m not quite sure how having a bigger group of allies makes you less conspicuous.
Overall then, I’d say Nori is playable, but far from a must-include. Thematically he’s a bit indifferent.
The last Spirit Dwarf is Oin, who marked an interesting point in the life of this game, being (arguably) the first hero with multiple spheres built-in. Oin starts life as a Spirit Hero, but if you control 5 or more dwarves, he gains an attack boost and a Tactics icon. As I say, it is arguable as to whether he is the first multi-sphere hero – Elrond can pay for allies of any sphere out of the gate, and Hirluin can pay for Outlanders from all spheres, but none of these can pay for attachments or events. On the other hand, they don’t need to meet a condition (5 dwarves) to trigger the ability.
The limited use I’ve made of Oin has been for resource smoothing in a Spirit/Tactics desk – Either splashing a bit of cancellation in an almost mono-tactics deck, or else in a more 50:50 split. However, you could use him as the sole tactics representation in a deck, paving the way for a true quad-sphere.
Power-wise, Oin is certainly decent- simply being a dwarf is generally to be considered “ok” on this front, and he certainly shines the brighter once you hit the 5 dwarf threshold. Thematically, I’m uncertain regarding a lot of the dwarves- the more of them there are the better, that’s clear. Why Oin particularly has been singled out as growing in martial prowess in a big group, I couldn’t really say – to be honest, I can’t recall a single action performed by Oin in particular, in either the books or the films. (Having done a quick google search, I can now identify him as “the one with the ear trumpet” in film-land). Overall, there’s no massive reason to avoid Oin, but at least for me, I think he suffered a bit from collective dwarf-fatigue. Perhaps writing this article will be the inspiration I need to go and build a new deck with him in.
Last of the Spirit Heroes (in this slightly odd Chronology which places the sagas after all the other expansions) is Fatty Bolger. In some ways, creating a Fatty hero was always going to be a difficult task for FFG. Aside from the inherent difficulty in creating anything serious named “fatty,” they would have to go a long way to top the brilliant fan-made creation which appeared very early on in the life of the game with the very apt text “forced: after characters commit to the quest, remove Fatty from the game.”
Despite this, FFG actually made a remarkably good job of the hero. Fatty is a Spirit Hobbit, who allows an individual player to raise their threat in order to ignore the threat of an enemy in the staging area. This is actually very thematic- whilst he may be best remembered from the books for disappearing at the start of the quest, Fatty in fact suffers a great deal of personal suffering (threat gain?) in order to ensure that Frodo and his companions can make a clean get-away without being hassled by the Nazgul.
On a gameplay level, used right, Fatty’s ability is actually quite powerful, enabling you to make progress in the early rounds when one threatening enemy would otherwise leave you becalmed. You’ll need threat reduction to avoid things getting out of hand, and he won’t work in the Sam/Merry/Pippin style Hobbit deck, but I’ve grouped him relatively successfully with Bilbo and Loragorn. Assuming that you’re running Lore Pippin, Fatty is also the only Spirit Hobbit on offer to you for Black Riders / The Road Darkens, at least whilst all the Fellowship heroes we have are Frodo.
Ultimately, Fatty doesn’t get all that much game time- the Sam/Merry/Pippin deck is just too obvious a fit, and if you’re looking for a thematic partner deck with spirit in, Glorfindel is too easy a choice. However, his principal set-back is probably just being based on a not-so-interesting character. His card remains both thematic and playable.
So, that rounds up the Spirit heroes. In some respects, Spirit has come along way from the core set – I’m not sure many people would ever have imagined Spirit heroes as competent in combat is Glorfindel or Idraen, but by and large they seem to be staying true to theme. What are you favourite Spirit heroes / strategies?