When you build a deck, whether that be in LotR LCG or any other game of this type, there are (broadly) two things you need to do.
- You need to figure out which cards you need to put in your deck to make it work
- You need to decide which cards you need to leave out
Of these two areas, I’d consider myself fairly good at the former, and really bad at the latter (which may explain why I’ve been having a decent level of success in the rebooted Game of Thrones LCG, where the card-pool is very small, and I’ve only bought two copies of the Core Set.)
Over the next two weeks, I want to go through a couple of worked examples of deck-building, crunch some numbers, and finish by offering some tips on how to avoid bloat when building decks.
A lot of the time, I have decks which hang around for a long time, with the odd card getting added or cut, but without a fundamental overhaul. My Dain / Thorin / Ori deck has been largely unchanged for a couple of years now, despite the addition of individual cards like Ally Gimli, and it’s still one of the best true-solo decks I have.
Recently however, I sat down to build a completely new deck. I played the Black Riders Hobbits when the box first came out, and had been wanting to try them again with some of the more recent cards – Staff of Lebethron, Taste it Again etc.
However, I also wanted to try something different – whilst Sam, Merry and Pippin go very well together, there are a lot of Hobbit-related cards which are excluded by being in Spirit. Obviously, you could sub in Fatty or Frodo, or even the alternate versions of Merry or Pippin, but none of these felt that appealing. Spirit Merry feels like he belongs in a different deck-type, and Spirit Pippin feels like he belongs in the bike-spokes.
When running Lore Pippin and Tactics Merry, the number of Hobbit Heroes you control is also a big factor: both attack and enemy engagement costs are directly pushed up by having more, so I didn’t want to just build 2 Hobbit decks.
Whilst dealing with some other decks and quests, I’d also been experimenting with Sword-Thain, a fun if rather expensive card which allows you to turn a unique Ally into a Hero. The two came together, and thus an idea was born: the quad-sphere Hobbit deck!
All the Hobbitses
As stated before, the starting Heroes were fairly clear: I needed Sam, Merry and Pippin, all in their Black Riders iterations. For “Hero” number 4, Bilbo Baggins felt like the obvious choice: Aside from Farmer Maggot, he is the only Unique Hobbit ally, and he comes from the missing sphere.
A lot of the cards for a Hobbit-deck pick themselves – for leadership, you want Bill the Pony, Hobbit Cloak, Taste it Again. In my opinion, if you don’t have hero Gandalf in play, there’s never a good reason not run 3x Sneak-Attack and 3x Gandalf (Core) in Leadership. For Tactics, Halfling Determination, Daggers of Westernesse, Ring-Mail and the already-mentioned Farmer Maggot are all good hobbit-specific cards, whilst staples like Feint are always worth a look. Lore gives you card-draw, some healing, Enemy-Management cards like Take no Notice and In the Shadows, as well as allies like Barliman Butterbur. If you’re looking to get big bodies out on the table, Elf Stone is a good way to go, and as soon as you put that in, Second Breakfast and Erebor Hammersmith seem like good ideas too.
On top of this, I had a specific aim: getting Ally Bilbo in play with Sword Thain on him – Bilbo and the Sword-Thain themselves obviously belong in the deck then, along with some cards to make use of having a spirit hero once he gets there, beyond simply powering up Merry and Pippin. Given the number of working parts involved in getting to that point, I also wanted to add some resource smoothing through Good Harvest and Song of Travel.
I sat down for an hour or so, threw some cards together, shuffled things around, and before long I had a fully-built deck…
…of 80 cards.
There is, of course, no upper-limit to the number of cards you can have in a deck in this game: 50 is fine, but so is 150 (at least in theory). In practice however, the bigger your deck, the lower the odds of seeing one key card. With quite a bit of help from a friend with a Maths PhD and the Internet, I worked out that if I need to see one particular card out of a deck of 50, assuming I’ve got 3 copies in there, then that’s a 32% chance of seeing it in my opening hand – rising to 54% after a Mulligan. In an 80-card deck, the 12 cards you see across a starting hand and a mulligan are a much lower percentage of your deck: the odds fall to 21% before Mulligan, and 37% after.
This is when it starts to get really complicated.
With the example of the Quad-Sphere deck, I need (optimistically) two cards in hand for the deck to work: Bilbo AND Sword-Thain. Going back to the Maths Doctor, she managed to put together a formula sufficiently idiot-proof for me to tweak, and I worked out that this gives a 14% chance after mulligan of pulling two specific cards from a 50-card deck (assuming 3 copies of each) – in an 80-card deck, that plummets to just under 7% – i.e. about 1 game in 14 will see you actually get those two cards. Even this is an optimistic model, as it makes no provision for how Bilbo is actually going to get into play in the first place, although thankfully there are multiple options for this.
Increasingly, I was starting to worry that this deck simply wasn’t viable: Steward of Gondor is great for resource acceleration, but if you see it too early in a tri/quad-sphere deck, you risk putting it on the wrong character. Big Allies (Beorn, Treebeard, Legolas, Northern Tracker) are great for dropping into play with Elf-Stone, but if you don’t draw that (or get the right location to put it on), then they are prohibitively expensive to play.
As always, the real thing to do was to actually play the deck through a few games and see how it fared. I took this against Passage Through Mirkwood solo, and it worked after a fashion – I did manage to get Bilbo out, with Sword-Thain on him, but even with the vast amount of card-draw this deck can generate, this didn’t really feel like it worked: if I’d spent the time and energy I spent setting up Bilbo and digging for combo-pieces on just questing through, I could probably have finished the quest a couple of rounds earlier. I think I’ll just trim this down to a standard tri-sphere with no Sword-Thain, maybe hanging on to a single Northern Tracker which I can play via the Elf-Stone.
There can be only 1!
I want to come back though, to that figure from the earlier paragraph – if you run three copies each of two different cards, there’s only a 14% chance that you’ll have both in your starting hand after a mulligan. (That’s without even considering the question of what to do when you draw one but not the other in your first hand) Now of course, you don’t have to have every card in your starting hand, but you do need to be realistic about how much of your deck you’re going to see over the course of a game.
If you’ve drawn the first half of your combo in set-up, you’re now essentially looking for 1 copy of a 3x card in a 44-card deck. Each card you draw is about a 7% chance, so you’re looking at around 7-9 cards before you hit an even chance of drawing that second card.
If your deck has lots of draw, this might not be too problematic: Pippin, Sam and Hero Bilbo could net you three cards per round fairly easily, and by turn 4 you’ve got a good chance of having drawn that card – however, this assumes that you can trigger all your card draw without getting whatever-it-is-your-deck-does up and running: do you really want to be engaging at least one high-threat enemy each round without weapons and armour to fight with?
I think it’s clear to anyone who has played this game a lot that you want decks to have multiple options: If you have ten cards in your deck that can get you started, whether they are multiple copies of the same thing or all different, then there is a very good chance that you will get at least one, even in bigger decks (74% at first try, 93% after mulligan, based on a 60-card deck). The tragedy for my inner Pippin, is that the more moving parts you have in the deck you want to build the less likely it is that you’ll ever get it to work.
All of this number-crunching has also given me an interesting insight into card-quantities in decks: Running 3 copies of a card you don’t need to see repeatedly, particularly a unique one, is often described as a risk in this game: you’re desperately trying to get something to stem the tide, and instead you draw a dead card.
However, next time you’re considering cutting a card, bear this in mind – 2 copies instead of 3 in a 50-card deck cuts the odds of seeing it in your opening hand from 32% to 22% – if you really want it, pack 3.
That’s all for the first part of this article. Next week, I’m going to take a look at another deck-building exercise, and try to pin this all down to some helpful rules for deck-building in the future.