Just before Christmas, I finished re-reading the Lord of the Rings book, something I hadn’t done for a few years. As always, I was struck by just how powerfully written the chapters Ride of the Rohirrim and the Battle of the Pelennor are: the descent of those riders onto that field of battle, the glory and sacrifice that so many make: it leaves me feeling thoroughly inadequate as a word-smith, and reminded of just why so many regard Tolkien as a master of his craft.
It’s been a recurring theme over the past couple of years that I’ve been running this blog, but that is how I want playing a Rohan deck to feel – by all means, it can be costly, difficult, but it should be powerful and glorious. Too often in the past, Rohan has been a utility set of cards for questing and location management, but something which somehow fails to click into a broader archetype. The card “Ride to Ruin” is a well-established example of this: discarding a Rohan ally, and paying a single spirit resource to place 3 progress on a location is a solid effect. If the ally you chose is a Snowbourn Scout, and if someone has the Horn of Gondor, or Eomer and Imrahil are in the party, it can be far more of a gain than a cost as your inner Pippin watches the single stone start a bigger landslide…
But for all of that, it never feels impressive. The card never lives up to the name. It never feels in tune with the flavour text – “DEATH! RIDE! RIDE TO RUIN AND THE WORLD’S ENDING” – this should be the Hail Mary Pass of the card game – and all-or-nothing play.
This sense of frustration has been around for a while – as I sit, mourning the fact that I will never have the time, money, or natural ability, to learn to play the Hardanger Fiddle – I have designed countless custom cards to fill the hole, or thought about how an existing card could be re-designed to fit better with the theme.
We all know, if we’re honest with ourselves, that Eomer is far from underpowered – the ability to get 5 attack (at least for a turn) without using a restricted attachment is solid, and once he gets Firefoot, the results can be devastating. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting more. As I re-read the passage where Eomer finds (he believes) the fallen corpse of his dead sister and, seized by the red-mist, single-handedly routs half the army of Harad, part of me thinks his ability should be “after a character leaves play, Eomer gets +2 attack until the end of the round (if the character is a Noble, Rohan character, he gets +4 attack instead, and does not exhaust to attack until the end of the round) (Limit once per round)”
It would be ridiculous – it would be beyond broken, especially with Eomund (actually, scratch that, apparently Eomund isn’t Noble…) but it would be awesome
There is probably no deck that is reliably, consistently awesome to play- if it was too powerful, it would become dull, if underpowered, there will always be times when it fails. What I was hoping for though, was that we had now reached the point where it’s possible to build a couple of solid, mostly-Rohan decks that can take on a broad range of quests by themselves and have a good chance.
Santa Theoden, like his Tactics Counterpart, suffers from the fact that his stats are pulling in different directions, and it never really feels like you get your money’s worth – the fact that his threat cost exceeds the sum of his stats is a big negative in this respect, but the real issue is that he has stat points widely spread, and can’t get the action advantage to make use of them all: Sentinel makes you want to defend with him, but 2 defence / 4 hit-points is flimsy for a main-defender. Steed of the Mark does allow him to re-ready, so you can quest and fight, or attack and defend, but the resource each round is a high-cost. Likewise, whilst Theoden allows you to play those allies cheaply, to trigger their discard abilities, or to pay for events, this only really works until about turn 4, where you find that the lack of card-draw has left you with no more allies to play, and the deck stalls out.
Finally though, in the dying weeks of 2015, the Land of Shadow box arrived, and I was able to add what I hoped had been the missing ingredients. Weirdly, despite having waited so long for the box, there were only actually 2 cards that I was waiting for – Snowmane and Gamling. However, they looked like they might provide the tipping point for making the Spirit side of Rohan really click
For a one-off cost of 1 (rather than a round-by-round cost), and fetchable with a horse-breeder, Snowmane allows you to use Theoden for questing and combat, at which point, he can finally start to be useful – if you can get Herugrim in there it becomes nice and smashy. It does have the extra requirement that you quest successfully every round, but if this deck isn’t questing well, it probably isn’t doing anything.
Gamling on the other hand, provides the recycling you need for your discarded allies: For a significant, but not impossible investment of 3 (more likely 2 if he is the first ally of the round), you can retrieve an ally each round. As an ally, he’s going to contribute very little directly, but giving up that action can allow you to keep cycling someone like the Escort from Edoras for 4 willpower per round.
These are the cards I’d been waiting for all these months, and it was finally time to build a deck with them. I put aside all of the home-brewed cards, to see how an authentic Rohan experience felt in the modern day.
Mustering the Rohirrim
I sat down for a while, threw some cards together, and found myself with a 75-card deck. I then reminded myself why I was building the deck, and took out all the homebrewed cards (mine and the ones made by the good people of the internet). After another couple of sifts through, I managed to get in down to 51 cards, which was as close as I was likely to get, whilst retaining allies, as much card draw as I could find in-sphere, and a bit of threat/location control.
For the first few outings, I paired the deck with a pre-existing Ent build I had, that used Beravor, Mablung and Beregond: the two decks meshed nicely, and we beat Passage of the Marshes on the second attempt.
I then branched out solo, and went right back to basics: Passage Through Mirwkood. The draws were not kind to me, with 2 rounds in a row of Dol Guldur Orcs [the “2 damage to a questing character” really stings], at the end of which I limped home from even this rather tame challenge. I certainly didn’t feel ready for Journey Along the Anduin.
The main problem with the mostly spirit deck, is that it just requires too many moving pieces. You need Gamling to recycle your allies, and you need Herugrim to ever stand a chance of killing anything. You need Snowmane to get a decent action economy out of Theoden, and you also need some kind of card-draw to keep all the pieces working, and even when you’re done, you still can’t really fight against modern enemies (no character with more than 3 defence, and your best hero defender is also your only decent attacker).
Riding to War
Whilst some amount of solo capability would be nice, most of the time, I’ll be pairing the Spirit-ish deck with a more martial partner: using Eomer, Hama, and Imrahil (as noted in the past, Imrahil is my choice for most thematic non-Rohan hero in a Rohan deck).
Whilst I didn’t want to abandon the Rohan theme altogether, I did allow a broader sprinkling of things from outside the box: some Gondor allies, which allow Imrahil to power up the questing with Visionary Leadership were the main concession here. As Imrahil himself can take a Gondorian Shield to get a reasonably solid 4 defence, you won’t die quite so quickly to normal-sized enemies, whilst Eomer + Firefoot is always a good attacking option.
The deck still has its struggles, of course. The most powerful, repeatable card-draw in Tactics is the Foe-Hama, but the deck doesn’t naturally lend itself to weapons (Eomer wants at least one of his restricted slots for a horse, we don’t have the staging-area capability to make use of Spear of the Mark, and threat is too high to get much mileage out of Dagger of Westernesse, so getting the initial cards to tee things up can be tricky.
I’ve mentioned several times the lack of good defence options in Rohan. I do use the Warden of Helm’s deep, who does a solid job for an ally if you can get him out, and some of the higher-cost unique allies have good stats, but overall the options are not spectacular.
I’m aware that there is someone I haven’t mentioned up until now, Rohan’s defender in chief, Erkenbrand. 3 Defence, 4 hit-points and Sentinel makes him a more solid blocker than anyone else in Rohan, and the ability to cancel shadow-effects allows you to defend with a lot more confidence. Compared with Theodred, whose stats can probably best be described as “feeble” he seems to make a good case for inclusion.
The trouble with Erkenbrand though, is that his stats come at a cost: his threat is 2 higher than Theodred, which might not seem like a lot, but in a deck with Theoden and Eowyn, it is the difference between the Hill Troll coming to get you on turn 1, or having a few seconds’ breathing-space. Also, whilst Theodred’s statistics are woeful, the extra resource every round that the young prince brings can be vital when churning out allies at a rate of knots. Even the shadow-cancellation Erkenbrand offers is limited in its utility when neither deck has any healing, as it can only be used 3 times at most, with the 4th proving fatal.
There certainly is scope for getting good use out of Erkenbrand, but I don’t think it’s within the context of an all-Rohan set-up.
Still Left behind?
It’s also worth noting that whilst the Rohirrim were being (slowly) mustered, others have not lain idle: Ents are a thing now, as are Dunedain, whilst the Noldor have new tricks to play with your discard pile. All of this means that the newer quests continue to get harder. Battle of Carn Dum is probably the most brutal quest we’ve encountered so far, but even a slightly calmer modern-day offering like Treachery of Rhudaur (allegedly a mere 5) is a real challenge.
I’ll continue to experiment with the Rohan decks – if you can generate the resource acceleration, an Eowyn deck is a reasonable one in which to put Elven-Light for a little bit more card-draw (discard for a will-power boost, then pull it back to draw a card). Currently I’m using Ancient Mathom, which is yet another card that just requires a bit too much setting up (need to draw, have a location to attach it to [i.e. one that isn’t immune] then explore it, all for a one-off boost of 3 cards). Cards like Mustering the Rohirrim feel like they should have a place in this deck, but the fact that you only get 1 ally, not “any” is a bit too restrictive (compare The Eagles are Coming, or Ent Moot)
Ultimately, I expect I’ll end up swapping back in some of the custom cards – between some of the things I’ve brewed myself, and a guy on board-game geek who has re-tooled some of the Core Set / Mirkwood Cycle allies to bring them in line with a more contemporary power-curve, there are some decent options out there. I continue to hope though, for a few official cards to enable a deck that I want to take to Organised Play events…