Back when the game was first launched, there was a brief explanation included on the website, and then in the rules, of what the 4 different spheres of influence in the game were supposed to represent.
Where it Began
Even without the official descriptions to hand, after half a cycle or so, there was a fairly clear picture of what the different spheres were all about.
Spirit was good at questing, and hard cancellation: Eowyn is still the queen of willpower 5 years in to the game’s life, and Test of Will is always one of the first cards I put into a deck featuring a Spirit hero. Spirit was also the home of Threat reduction, and had most of the limited location control that existed (i.e. Northern Tracker). Despite its strengths, Spirit couldn’t fight its way out of a paper bag, and ignoring the strange things going on around Dunhere, it stayed as far away from a fight as it could.
Tactics was the fighting sphere. More attack, bigger fighters, weapons and armour, direct damage. That was Tactics’ stock in trade. It gradually acquired more and more cards to manipulate combat, although Feint and Quick Strike are Core set staples that never really go away. In direction contrast to Spirit, Tactics was the sphere that couldn’t Quest to save its life – some of the heroes might get up to 2 willpower, but it was highly unlikely that the allies would. If you wanted to place progress in Tactics, you were going to need to do it with Legolas or a Blade of Gondolin.
Lore was the knowing stuff sphere. Specifically knowing how to get more cards, and how to fix things that were broken, although with a bit of knowing what the encounter deck was up to thrown in (Incidentally, the 3 Core Set Lore Heroes each fit one of these patterns). As time went on, the card-draw and healing aspects probably got the most development, and we started to see movement towards shadow protection and location management.
Leadership was, in many respects, the Jack-of-all-trades, Master-of-none sphere. It lacked the obvious identity of the other spheres, and dabbled slightly, with good all-round stats, a little bit of card draw, and some great toolbox cards like Sneak Attack. The only area where Leadership was the clear master was in resource acceleration – to this day, there isn’t really a card better than Steward of Gondor for making money.
Moving to the Present
Fast-forward 5 years, and it’s a very different landscape we see now.
Spirit has 3 heroes with 3 printed Attack – Glorfindel, Idraen, and Lanwyn. Lanwyn has the ranged keyword as well, allowing her to snipe enemies engaged with others. They also (with the most recent release, of Flame of the West), have a character with 4 printed defence. This doesn’t suddenly, or magically make Spirit the most powerful combat sphere in the game, but it seriously calls into question the idea that they can’t handle their own share of Combat.
Likewise, Tactics has acquired willpower. The average tactics ally is still not going to contribute much to the quest, but you can run a mono-tactics deck with Theoden, Eowyn, and Merry (quite thematic, really), and quest for 11 on turn 1 with just your heroes (and a starting threat of 24).
Spirit can still bring a big stack of willpower, but if you want to rack up the biggest total, you might want to look to Leadership – chuck out a swarm of cheap Gondor allies, and chain them together with ally Faramir, Aragorn wielding the Sword that was Broken, and Visionary Leadership on a hero with a spare resource, and you’re looking at totals that Spirit will be hard-pressed to keep in touch with.
Healing remains mostly in Lore, but other spheres have damage cancellation, which looks a lot like the same thing a lot of the time. Shadow cancellation can be found dotted around the place, with tactics getting the most recent boost in this regard. Tactics is still the go-to for killing things, but you’d be a fool to underestimate the smashing power an assembled field of Ents (mostly lore) or Dwarves (anywhere, although most numerous in Leadership or Lore).
Does it Matter?
One possible, and obvious response to this, is “who cares?” does it particularly matter if a given sphere’s ability is now being replicated by another – it means that when you need to go really heavy on something, you can load up on the main-sphere staples AND throw in some auxiliary support from another sphere. It also makes it more viable to play without certain spheres, which is particularly helpful in games with low player-counts.
More than that though, I think the sphere-bleed we have seen represents a fairly fundamental shift in the game, away from sphere-based deck-building, to faction-based deck-building. In the early days I mostly built mono-sphere decks, and even a two-sphere construction would require considerable thought, and multiple songs. These days, the in-faction synergy tends to be good enough that it’s worth suffering the resource curve issues to make sure that your deck has a coherent theme to it. Dwarves were the first faction to really do this, and we’ll probably never get another card on a comparable level with Dain Ironfoot, but Leadership Boromir, Celeborn and others have shown alternate takes on ways to encourage building around a trait rather than just a sphere.
For me, the rise of trait-based decks is undoubtedly a good thing. With all the other things that have been going on, if I was still having to chuck together random heroes united by nothing more than a common “sphere” then I think I’d probably have packed the game in by now. The hope of actually being able to assemble the horse lords of Edoras, the returning Sons of Gondor, or the watchful Dunedain of the North gives the game that added bit of flavour I need to tie back into the theme which drew me to the game in the first place.
Without necessarily pushing the sphere bleed itself (although that has definitely been happening), the current cycle (Dreamchaser) has been doing something else to push you in the direction of multiple spheres with the new cards that get played out of one sphere, and can then have a bonus effect from another.
These cards are certainly an interesting new direction, and they can be used to great effect – in our 3-player game of Wastes of Eriador, the Hobbit player (with Black Riders Pippin) was able to prevent any of the large pack of wolves from engaging us, allowing my Lore Rangers to play Arrows from the Trees, and the tacticians of Rohan to add a further 3 resources to leave some seriously battered and bloodied wargs in the staging area.
As a concept, these cards are fun, although the utility feels very varied. Having to evaluate them both as an initial effect and if you manage to trigger the second stage makes life complicated. Of course, you also need to factor in the fact that the allies can be triggered over multiple rounds, so you only need the initial cost now, and can save up for the bonus ability in later turns. Events by contrast are 1-and-done, so if it’s not going to go off all at once, it’s probably not going to happen at all.
As already mentioned, Arrows from the Trees, is a card we’ve already managed to use to good effect, and I plan to keep running it for a while. Tides of Fate, starts out as simply a more-limited version of test of will: instead of cancelling a shadow effect for 1 resource, it can boost your defence in response to an attack-boosting shadow. However, if you can find the 2 tactics resources, readying that defender and giving them +3 attack could mean a dead enemy rather than a live one. The spoiled, upcoming “Knife Work” also looks like a good deal, with 1 resource to give every enemy engaged with a player -1 defence looking like a good deal straightaway, even if you can’t afford the 2 lore resources to let that person draw a card for each enemy they destroy this phase.
In terms of the characters, Deorwine as a 3-defence, 3 hit-point character is a really solid defending ally, and the ability to cancel shadow effects removes a lot of the danger that ally-defence is typically fraught with. Others, like Eldahir or Ceorl feel far more marginal, their ability too dependent on a fortunate series of events, or just not that powerful.
I think that that the shift in emphasis away from spheres, generally, has been a good thing and, as I’ve noted above, being able to build viable, trait-based decks has been vital in keeping my interest.
There is a part of me that worries the sphere-bleed may be going too far: as soon as every sphere can do everything, decks lose coherence, and you end up with too many things not being dealt with.
The multi-sphere cards this cycle have been good, and I hope we see more of them in the second-half of the cycle. I look forward to seeing what’s left to come.