The Free Peoples/Shadow Connection - by Ted Vessenes


The Free Peoples/Shadow Connection

by Ted Vessenes (vessenes@earthlink.net)

At first glance, it may seem like The Lord of the Rings™ trading card game makes you design two different decks – one Free Peoples and another Shadow. These two decks seem to have no connection with each other. In reality, there are three important connections between the Free Peoples and Shadow decks. The most obvious connection is that of sites. Both your Free Peoples and Shadow decks compete for sites, and some strategies just don't work well together because of overcompetition for good sites.

For example, consider the following Free Peoples and Shadow decks: An Elf deck with Elf allies, Asfaloth, Elven Bows, and a Moria orc deck with all the inexpensive Moria orcs, designed to overwhelm the Ring-bearer. So what's the problem? Sites 4, 6, and 7.

The Moria orc deck wants site 4 to be an underground site, since this will make Goblin Wallcrawler larger (and make the Cave Troll cheaper, if the deck plays him). But the Elf deck wants site 4 to be above ground so Asfaloth lasts another turn. Come site 6, the Elf allies obviously want Lothlórien Woods, giving each ally +3 strength. But Moria Orcs prefer Dimrill Dale, reducing the twilight cost of the first Moria Orc played by 2. And for site 7, Moria Orcs prefer Anduin Wilderland because the archery phase gets skipped. Since the Orcs mostly have 1 vitality, skipping the archery phase makes them far more dangerous. But the last thing an Elf archery deck wants to do is skip the archery phase.

There is another connection between the Free Peoples and Shadow decks. It is subtle and obvious at the same time. Both Free Peoples and Shadow cards are drawn from the same deck. "So what?" Well, consider the above Elf/Orc deck. It is much easier to play the Shadow cards than the Free Peoples cards. The Shadow cards will be 1, 2, or 3 cost orcs (or 0 cost Scimitars). Dropping your entire Shadow hand will be no problem. But the Elf cards will be more situational cards which can't always be played (such as combat pump effects which might not be needed). If you play 6 Shadow cards per turn but only 2-3 Free Peoples cards per turn, your hand will eventually glut itself with Free Peoples cards. Your deck will be unable to effectively attack the opponent, meaning your opponent will race ahead and you will be unable to stop him or her. When mixing a Free Peoples and Shadow deck together, it's important that both decks play a similar number of cards each turn. If your Moria Orc deck plays 6-8 cards per turn, mix it with a Free Peoples strategy that does the same.

The final Free Peoples/Shadow connection stems from another subtle yet obvious fact. Each turn, you must play either Free Peoples or Shadow cards. You are in trouble if you neither want to move forward (play Free Peoples cards) nor let your opponent move forward (play Shadow cards). Suppose your Free Peoples deck can take a while to set up, as with an Elf archery deck. Towards the end of the game, the Elves have no problem moving two sites per turn. But in the beginning, they must move slowly to avoid losing companions. The Elf deck is a "late game" deck. If your Shadow deck uses Uruk-hai (a Shadow strategy that only kicks in at site 5), you will find yourself in quite a bind. In the early game, your opponent can race forward and you won't be able to punish him or her. You will be unable to move more than once per turn. To avoid this problem, mix early game Free Peoples decks with late game Shadow decks and vice versa.

A Free Peoples deck is "early game" if it gets set up relatively quickly and "late game" if it takes a while for your fellowship to become relatively safe. Early decks tend to use lots of replacable events (e.g., Hobbit Stealth) while late decks rely on items and combos with those items (e.g., Aragorn's Bow, Strength of Spirit). A Shadow deck is "early game" if it punishes the opponent more at early sites and "late game" if it hits hard at later sites.

Deck Archetypes

Mixing Free Peoples and Shadow decks together is a tricky business. Finding an optimal fit requires a perfect matching between the sites, the card rate, and the time nature of the decks. Let's start with a brief description of all (currently) viable Free Peoples and Shadow archetypes.

Free Peoples

Elf:
Starts Legolas and Arwen. Plays many Lorien Elves, Elven bows, Haldir, and Elf allies.

Sites:
2: Trollshaw Forest
3: Rivendell Valley
4: Moria Lake
6: Lothlorien Woods
7: Silverlode Banks
Card rate: 2-4 cards per turn
Time nature: Late game

Dwarf:
Starts Gimli and Farin. Consists almost entirely of Dwarf combat pumpage, plus 4 Dwarf Guards.

Sites:
4: Dwarrowdelf Chamber
7: Anduin Wilderland or Anduin Confluence
Card rate: 3-4 cards per turn
Time nature: Early game

Hobbit:
Four Hobbit companions, There and Back Again, and a lot of Hobbit support cards. Starting company is flexible but includes at least 1 Hobbit. Usually plays Boromir to pump Hobbits in combat. Might play Legolas, Greenleaf in conjunction with Power According to His Stature.

Sites:
1: Farmer Maggot's Fields, Green Hill Country, or Green Dragon Inn (variant dependent)
2: Buckleberry Ferry (for some variants)
3: Frodo's Bedroom (for some variants)
4: Balin's Tomb
7: Anduin Wilderland or Anduin Confluence (variant dependent)
Card rate: 3-4 cards per turn
Time nature: Early game

Archer:
Starts Legolas and Arwen and includes Aragorn with Aragorn's Bow. Instead of Elf support cards like the Elf deck, this deck plays more Man support cards such as Athelas and No Stranger to the Shadow. Last Alliance of Elves and Men makes Aragorn a force to be reckoned with. Also plays A Ranger's Versatility to exhaust minions (and thereafter shoot them with archery).

Sites:
1: The Prancing Pony
2: Trollshaw Forest
3: Ford of Bruinen or Rivendell Waterfall
6: Lothlorien Woods
7: Silverlode Banks
Card rate: 2-3 cards per turn
Time nature: Late game

Ranger:
Starts Boromir, Lord of Gondor, and Merry and includes Aragorn. The deck focuses on reducing Shadow number for moving (which in turn causes the opponent Shadow card glut, leaving them without enough Free Peoples cards to defend). Includes multiple copies of No Stranger to the Shadow and A Talent for Not Being Seen, as well as other man support cards like Athelas. Uses 8 stealth cards to thwart most early attacks.

Sites:
1: The Prancing Pony
2: Trollshaw Forest
3: Council Courtyard
7: Silverlode Banks
Card rate: 2-4 cards per turn
Time nature: Early game

Gandalf:
Starts Legolas Greenleaf and Arwen, Legolas Greenleaf and Gimli, or just Gandalf. Uses Strength of Spirit to "reload" Legolas' bow as much as possible. May also include Aragorn for Aragorn's Bow. Designed to shoot down the toughest enemy minions and then kill the remainder with a powerful Gandalf and Gimli, Arwen, and/or Aragorn.

Sites:
1: The Prancing Pony, Shire Lookout Point (variant dependent)
2: Trollshaw Forest (some variants)
4: Dwarrowdelf Chamber (some variants)
7: Anduin Confluence
Card rate: 2-3 cards per turn
Time nature: Late game

Pipeweed:
Starts Gandalf. Plays Gandalf's Cart as soon as possible with a large number of Free Peoples items. In the early game, it resists adding points to the Shadow pool until enough items are stored on the cart. When needed (and the fellowship looks strong enough to withstand an assault), it plays all the items off the card and takes one painful attack. For the rest of the game, any damage done by attacking enemies is done by removing 3-4 wounds by Aragorn's Pipe, leaving the opponent hard pressed to deal any damage. Might play Bilbo to shuffle in extra pipeweed.

Sites:
1: Shire Lookout Point
2: Trollshaw Forest
7: Anduin Wilderland
Card rate: 5-8 cards per turn
Time nature: Late game

Shadow

Nazgûl:
Plays as many fierce Nazgûl as possible. Since Nazgûl are expensive, it's difficult to kill companions with Nazgûl. Instead, the Nazgûl deck focuses on stopping the fellowship from moving more than one site per turn. Vulnerable to Free Peoples strategies using No Stranger to the Shadow, so it plays The Pale Blade and The Witch King to remove powerful Free Peoples conditions.

Sites:
2: Bree Streets or Weatherhills (variant dependent)
3: Ford of Bruinen
9: Summit of Amon Hen
Card rate: 2-3 cards per turn
Time nature: Early game

Moria Swarm:
Plays as many Moria Orcs as possible. No combat pumpage cards are played (except Goblin Scimitar) in favor of more cheap Goblins. Since the deck wins through overwhelming, it's better to spend 1 point for a 5 power Orc than spend 0 points for a 2 power pump card. Can easily play 6 to 8 cards per turn. Goblin Swarms and Goblin Armory provide a steady source of Goblins and twilight tokens.

Sites:
4: Any underground site
6: Dimrill Dale
7: Anduin Wilderland
8: Shores of Nen Hithoel
9: Summit of Amon Hen
Card rate: 5-8 cards per turn
Time nature: Early game

Cave Troll:
The antithesis of a Moria Swarm deck, it is designed to play the Cave Troll of Moria as often as possible. Overwhelming the opponent is not a realistic option, so the deck focuses on making the Cave Troll less expensive and more powerful.

Sites:
4: Any underground site
6: Dimrill Dale
8: Shores of Nen Hithoel
9: Emyn Muil or Summit of Amon Hen
Card rate: 3-4 cards per turn
Time nature: Late game

Uruk-hai:
Designed around playing the most damage-efficient minions possible. Uses Worry in the mid- to late-game to create an alternate win condition: "Win the game if your Uruk-hai win ten Skirmishes". Tends to have few early game plays but can easily play three to five Uruk-hai per turn at sites 5, 7, 8, and 9.

Sites:
7: Silverlode Banks or Anduin Confluence
9: Slopes of Amon Hen
Card rate: 2-4 cards per turn
Time nature: Late game

Mordor:
Like the Uruk-hai deck, the Mordor Orc deck is designed around causing as much damage as possible. In this case, it involves 4 Orc Bowmen to cause early pain with 4 Hate to finish off important Free Peoples characters. The minions include 12-16 Mordor orcs with "Exert to wound defending companion" text.

Sites:
7: Silverlode Banks or Anduin Confluence
8: Shores of Nen Hithoel
9: Tol Brandir
Card rate: 2-4 cards per turn
Time nature: Late game

Whew, that's a lot of information! In Part II, we'll try to make some sense of it and find some good Free Peoples/Shadow fits.

Now let's try to make some sense of all that information and find some good Free Peoples/Shadow fits. Looking over the list, the most obvious combination is a Pipeweed/Moria Swarm deck. They are the only decks that routinely play 5-8 cards per turn. Even better is that the Swarm deck is an early game deck while the Pipeweed deck is a late game deck. And to top it off, there are no site conflicts. Since it averages 6 cards drawn per turn over perhaps 7 turns times 2 players, this deck can easily draw 80 cards. This deck will be larger than sixty cards. Playtesting seems to imply that 80-86 cards is the right size.

 

Sites:
[1] Shire Lookout Point
[2] Trollshaw Forest
[3] Rivendell Terrace
[4] Mithril Mine
[5] The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
[6] Galadriel's Glade
[7] Anduin Wilderland
[8] The Shores of Nen Hithoel
[9] Summit of Amon Hen

Ring-bearer:
Frodo, Old Bilbo's Heir
The One Ring, The Ruling Ring

Free Peoples:
1 Gandalf, Friend of the Shirefolk (starting)
3 Aragorn, Ranger of the North
2 Boromir, Son of Denethor
2 Merry, From O'er the Brandywine
1 Bilbo Baggins, Retired Adventurer
4 Hobbit Stealth
4 Old Toby
4 Longbottom Leaf
3 Hobbit Sword
2 Glamdring
2 Ranger Sword
1 Aragorn's Bow
3 Aragorn's Pipe
2 Gandalf's Pipe
2 The Gaffer's Pipe
2 Bilbo's Pipe
2 Gandalf's Cart
2 Sleep, Caradhras

Shadow:
4 Goblin Runner
4 Goblin Sneak
4 Goblin Backstabber
4 Goblin Wallcrawler
4 Moria Scout
4 Goblin Scavenger
2 Goblin Warrior
2 Cave Troll of Moria, Scourge of the Black Pit
4 Host of Thousands
4 Goblin Scimitar
4 Goblin Armory
2 Goblin Swarms

Another good fit seems to be the Dwarf/Cave Troll deck. Both decks want an underground site at site 4 and have similar card rates. The Dwarf deck is pretty much outfitted from the beginning (one Dwarf pump card is much the same as another), so it's an early play deck, while the Cave Troll deck takes some time to get started. Here is one potential build for this deck:

Sites:
[1] Westfarthing
[2] Breeland Forest
[3] Rivendell Waterfall
[4] Dwarrofdelf Chamber
[5] The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
[6] Dimrill Dale
[7] Anduin Confluence
[8] The Shores of Nen Hithoel
[9] Emyn Muil

Ring-bearer:
Frodo, Son of Drogo
The One Ring, The Ruling Ring

Free Peoples:
1 Gimli, Son of Gloin (starting)
1 Farin, Dwarven Emissary (starting)
4 Dwarf Guard
4 Dwarven Axe
2 Gimli's Battle Axe
3 Gimli's Helm
4 Their Halls of Stone
4 Axe Strike
4 Cleaving Blow
2 Hobbit Stealth
1 Sting

Shadow:
4 Goblin Runner
4 Goblin Scavengers
4 Troll's Keyward
4 Cave Troll of Moria, Scourge of the Black Pit
4 Host of Thousands
4 Goblin Armory
4 Goblin Scimitar
2 Cave Troll's Hammer

The Elf deck has a bit of a problem. It's a late game deck that doesn't draw a lot of cards per turn. The best match is probably a Nazgûl deck, although the Elves would have to give up Trollshaw Forest and Rivendell Valley as sites 2 and 3. Alternatively, you could mix it with an Uruk-hai or Mordor deck, but the late game nature of both Free Peoples and Shadow strategies would probably confound the deck, despite having so many good cards. It would never get its feet off the ground. Here is an attempt at an Elf/Nazgûl deck:

Sites:
[1] East Road
[2] Weatherhills
[3] Ford of Bruinen
[4] Moria Lake
[5] The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
[6] Lothlorien Woods
[7] Silverlode Banks
[8] The Shores of Nen Hithoel
[9] Summit of Amon Hen

Ring-bearer:
Frodo, Son of Drogo
The One Ring, The Ruling Ring

Free Peoples:
1 Legolgas, Greenleaf (starting)
1 Arwen, Daughter of Elrond (starting)
2 Haldir, Elf of the Golden Wood
3 Lorien Elf
1 Asfaloth
1 Gwemegil
1 Bow of the Galadhrim
1 The Tale of Gil-Galad
4 Elvish Bow
4 Defiance
3 Border Defenses
1 Sting
1 Galadriel, Lady of Light
1 Celeborn, Lord of Lorien
1 Elrond, Lord of Rivendell
1 Orophin, Lorien Bowman
1 Rumil, Elven Protector
2 Swan-ship of the Galadhrim

Shadow:
4 The Witch-king, Lord of Angmar
4 Úlairë Attëa, Keeper of Dol Guldur
2 Úlairë Enquëa, Lieutenant of Morgul
3 Úlairë Cantëa, Lieutenant of Dol Guldur
3 Úlairë Nelya, Lieutenant of Morgul
4 Morgul Gates
4 Black Breath
3 Blade Tip
3 The Pale Blade

The Archer and Gandalf decks (similar in nature) are late game decks that play few cards per turn, so they are best suited for the Nazgûl Shadow strategy. The match seems a bit better than the Elf/Nazgûl match. Here is one version of the Gandalf/Nazgûl strategy:

Sites:
[1] Westfarthing
[2] Weatherhills
[3] Ford of Bruinen
[4] DwarrowdElf Chamber
[5] The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
[6] Galadriel's Glade
[7] Anduin Confluence
[8] The Shores of Nen Hithoel
[9] Summit of Amon Hen

Ring-bearer:
Frodo, Son of Drogo
The One Ring, The Ruling Ring

Free Peoples:
1 Legolas, Greenleaf (Starter)
1 Gimli, Son of Gloin (Starter)
4 Gandalf, Friend of the Shirefolk
1 Aragorn, Ranger of the North
2 Glamdring
2 Dwarven Axe
2 Gimli's Helm
1 Sting
1 The Tale of Gil-Galad
4 Strength of Spirit
1 Sleep, Caradhras
2 Servant of the Secret Fire
4 Hobbit Stealth
4 Hobbit Intuition

Shadow:
4 The Witch-king, Lord of Angmar
4 Úlairë Attëa, Keeper of Dol Guldur
2 Úlairë Enquëa, Lieutenant of Morgul
3 Úlairë Cantëa, Lieutenant of Dol Guldur
3 Úlairë Nelya, Lieutenant of Morgul
4 Morgul Gates
4 Black Breath
3 Blade Tip
3 The Pale Blade

That leaves the Ranger and Hobbit decks looking for Shadow deck mates. Both are early game decks (in that the Free Peoples prepares itself relatively quickly). Their closest Shadow deck matches appear to be the Uruk-hai and Mordor decks, both late game decks with similar card rates and no site conflicts. Since the Hobbit deck gets prepared faster than the Ranger deck ("More" early game) and the Mordor deck starts working later than the Uruk-hai deck, that leaves us with a Hobbit/Mordor deck and a Ranger/Uruk-hai deck. The Hobbit/Mordor deck:

Sites:
[1] The Green Dragon Inn
[2] Buckleberry Ferry
[3] Council Courtyard
[4] Balin's Tomb
[5] The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
[6] Galadriel's Glade
[7] Anduin Confluence
[8] The Shores of Nen Hithoel
[9] Tol Brandir

Ring-bearer:
Frodo, Old Bilbo's Heir
The One Ring, The Ruling Ring

Free Peoples:
1 Merry, From O'er the Brandywine (starting)
1 Pippen, Hobbit of Some Intelligence (starting)
1 Sam, Son of Hamfast (starting when going second)
2 Legolas, Greenleaf (starting when going first)
2 Boromir, Son of Denethor
1 Bilbo Baggins, Retired Adventurer
2 Sting
4 Hobbit Stealth
4 Hobbit Intuition
4 Power According to His Stature
4 There and Back Again
4 A Talent for Not Being Seen

Shadow:
4 Orc Soldier
4 Orc Scouting Band
4 Orc Hunters
2 Orc War Band
2 Orc Inquisitor
2 Morgul Warden
4 Forces of Mordor
4 Orc Bowmen
4 Hate

And finally, the Ranger/Uruk-hai deck:

Sites:
[1] The Prancing Pony
[2] Trollshaw Forest
[3] Council Courtyard
[4] Moria Lake
[5] The Bridge of Khazad-dûm
[6] Galadriel's Glade
[7] Silverlode Banks
[8] The Shores of Nen Hithoel
[9] Slopes of Amon Hen

Ring-bearer:
Frodo, Son of Drogo
The One Ring, The Ruling Ring

Free Peoples:
1 Boromir, Lord of Gondor (starting)
1 Merry, Friend to Sam (starting)
3 Aragorn, King in Exile
4 Athelas
2 Hobbit Sword
2 Ranger Sword
1 Aragorn's Bow
1 Blade of Gondor
1 Armor
3 No Stranger to the Shadows
2 A Talent for Not Being Seen
1 Saga of Elendil
4 Hobbit Stealth
4 Hobbit Intuition

Shadow:
4 Uruk Fighter
4 Uruk Warrior
4 Uruk Lieutenant
2 Uruk Shaman
3 Orthanc Assassin
2 Lurtz, Servant of Isengard
4 Saruman's Ambition
4 Savagery to Match Their Numbers
3 Worry

Whew! That's a lot of decks! Let me warn you that some of these decks have been tested more than others. The Ranger and Pipeweed decks have been tested the most and are very effective. The Gandalf deck listing has also been tested a fair amount and seems pretty good, although it could use some work. (My testing is hampered by not owning 4 Witch Kings and 3 Pale Swords.) And remember, these decks are just starting points, not finished products. Try them out for yourself and figure out how to improve them.

The Shores of Nen Hithoel

There isn't enough time to analyze each of these decks in detail, but there is one detail worth explaining. Each of these decks plays Shores of Nen Hithoel as its 8th site. Why is that?

Consider every site that could be played as site 8: Anduin Banks (good against large companies), Brown Lands (good with Minion Archers), Pillars of the Kings (bad against people playing men), and Shores of Nen Hithoel (good when you want 3 more in the pool or when you have orcs).

It's just better to have 3 more points in the twilight pool. Remember, when your site 8 enters play, it means your opponent moved ahead of you. The only way Shores of Nen Hithoel could hurt you is if: #1: You opponent doesn't move on to site 9, #2: The extra 3 points against your opponent didn't help you damage them more, and #3: The extra 3 points against you helps your opponent kill you or stop you

Yes, all three of those things can happen. There are rare situations when Shores of Nen Hithoel can cost you the game. But more often than not, the extra three points makes YOU win the game by playing yet another minion that kills yet another companion.

Lets consider the other options. Anduin Banks? Only really better than Shores of Nen Hithoel when they have 6 companions -- and if they have 6 companions by site 8, your Shadow deck needs work. Brown Lands? How many minion archers are there? One playable Moria Orc and two playable Uruk-hai. At best, Brownlands would add 2 to the archery total. You can just as easily deal 2 extra damage by playing another minion. Pillars of the Kings? This can only help your opponent unless you move there first. This means you played Pathfinder to put the site out, stopped at the Pillars (and your opponent doesn't race through for the win), and then healed yourself next fellowship phase before moving on. How likely is that to happen?

Honestly, Shores of Nen Hithoel is the only site 8 that should ever be played. It's possible that future expansions will print enough Moria Orc archers that Brown Lands could be considered, but even that is doubtful. You don't know if you will draw minion archers, but you'll always draw minions that require Shadow points to play. It's unfortunate that Decipher printed a card that absolutely goes in every deck (the mark of an unbalanced card), but I guess that's expected in a new game.

In the realm of unbalanced cards, it could be far worse. Imagine if every Shadow deck could easily play The Balrog of Moria, instead of having a minion spot restriction like The Cave Troll of Moria! Since there is only one site 5 (and I doubt another will get printed), absolutely everyone would play The Balrog in every deck, fetching him out when the fellowship moved to The Bridge of Khazad-dûm. People would start building 59 card decks and then add one Balrog. The more unbalanced cards get printed, the less creativity goes into deck design. But I have confidence that Decipher will print a reasonably restricted version (versions?) of The Balrog.

January 15, 2002

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